Work-Life Integration v. Balance – Panacea or Pandora’s Box?

March 17, 2015

I have noticed a lot of business articles and social media posts lately touting the “new” way to achieve life nirvana through the newly coined “work-life integration,” as opposed to the work-life balance of the early 2000’s. Everyone from CEOs of large tech companies to my friends who head small, local businesses, talk about the beauty and benefit of integration over balance. As one who absolutely abhors and eschews trendy business ideas, I first had to understand what exactly they were talking about. What do they mean by integration versus balance? What’s the difference between the two? Is this a semantics argument? What I learned is that this all depends on how you feel about your work, and when you truly understand what integration means, it may have you changing your mind.

The meaning of these terms is not as important as the interpretation of them. And interpretation depends upon who you ask. For most, integration refers to the “all-in” approach whereby the lines between work and life are fuzzy if not gone altogether. Empowered by technology, you are not constrained by the binary construct of work-life balance, and you can instead integrate everything, and get work done from anywhere at any time, enabling seamless shifts in focus from family life to work and back again. You work at home, on the beach, at Panera, wherever you need to be. You also have the freedom in this approach to volunteer at your child’s school, attend doctor’s appointments and wait for the cable guy without taking actual leave. Sounds utopian, right? Could be, in particular, for people who LOVE their work. For those who have found their life passion, and would be perfectly content to do the job for free, integration is indeed the sweet friction point enabling them to let out the clutch a little as they shift gears and accelerate into another area of our lives. To integration proponents, balance, on the other hand, is constricting, and draws a thick line between the two worlds of work and life blocking them from full enjoyment of either. For better or worse, balance connotes a fully focused presence in one world or the other, whereby one area of your life is not overtaking the other, and you “turn off” from work to be home and vice versa.

For many, the terms could be interchangeable. It’s a tomayto, tomahto situation and most don’t care what you call it so long as they have the freedom to move about their lives in the way they want. But I take issue with it, and caution you with the interpretation of integration. When you listen to some business leaders talk, integration implies a never-needing-to-turn-it-off, all access, all-the-time approach, which is great for employers wanting to squeeze more production out their workforce. And, it’s great for those who absolutely love their work. But I don’t believe most people fall into this camp. Were just not all lucky enough to have found our life passion yet, and so we are in j-o-bs, or even careers, that don’t enthuse or inspire us, but they pay the bills and keep us going. So, for the rest of us, does integration really work? The devil is in the execution.

You really need to fully understand your employer’s interpretation of integration before you sign on. The ironic and obvious danger is the loss of true balance. When technology enables the employer and employee to ditch the standard 8 to 5 work day, you may think on the surface this is great because you’re not tied to a daily schedule – the grind as they say. But, the tradeoff is, they can reach you evenings, weekends, on vacations or at your child’s birthday party. Think about that for a second. Sounds great when you’ve been chained to your desk for so many years, but in reality, are you sure that’s what you want?

I have worked as an independent consultant from home and as a full-time employee with varying levels of integration and I am here to tell you, the Emperor Has No Clothes. He is stark raving naked as a matter of fact. Trust me, balance – not integration – has been, is, and will always be, the Holy Grail, in particular for people who are, shall we say, not living the dream. Yes, technology enables a more mobile, “work from anywhere” approach. It yields freedom – from a physical location, but it certainly doesn’t yield freedom from the work. If what you want is what I want, and I think what most of us want – a true balanced approach to life, where when you are with family, you are 100% focused on them, and when you are at work, you are 100% focused on work, then you need what I call bounded integration, meaning, you take advantage of technology to let you work from wherever as opposed to the confines of an office or daily schedule, however, you set thick DMZs, zones between work and life outside work, so that you can be assured you are fully present, in whichever box you’re in at the moment. For me, that means, working from home independently, but setting limits to my availability. I don’t answer emails between 7 pm and 7 am or from Friday night at 5 pm until Monday morning at 7 am, unless there is an emergency (remembering that your failure to plan does not constitute an emergency for me). Then, and only then, will you hit that life nirvana.

So, if balance is what you crave, and you think integration is the answer, just be skeptical. Ask questions. Find out what it really means for your employer and ask friends all along the continuum of integration how they like it. Integration means and implies different things for different people. For single men and women, it could be fantastic. For working parents, it may be okay at times and a nightmare at other times. For families with one working parent and for single parents, it could go either way. And, most important, it really matters whether you love what you are doing. The point is, don’t let the shiny exterior of integration dazzle you too much. Integration is not the panacea you may think, but rather a Pandora’s Box. And once it’s out there, you really can’t put it back.

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