Forget ‘balance’; instead, try work-life ‘integration’

September is always a very busy time of year for me – both at work, with the start of a new school term here at the University of Toronto, and at home, with my son heading back to school. So busy, in fact, that I’ve been neglecting this blog and many other things in favour of just trying to keep up with the essentials.

An article in today’s HBR Blog Network caught my eye: Work and Vacation Should Go¬† Together, by Ron Ashkenas. Catchy title aside (guaranteed to lure anyone who’s snuck in some work during vacation time, myself included and I suspect many of you), the article has an interesting and novel perspective on how we manage work and personal life. For years I’ve been trying to achieve that elusive ‘balance’ that’s supposed to be optimal, and have been failing. Which is why this phrase got my attention:

The reality for many of us these days is that our professional lives bleed into our personal lives. The boundaries are increasingly permeable and movable. We check our emails in the evenings and weekends. We delay or miss family events because we can’t leave the office. And when we do, we take our communications devices with us so that we can stay connected to work.

Guilty as charged. But the thing is, I really *like* what I do. I love my job. It energizes me and gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. I also believe that it makes me smarter, which is important to me. Granted, I need a break now and then and vacations are wonderful. But my ideal vacation is having free time to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Which includes thinking about interesting projects I’d like to start, working out challenging problems in my work, and talking to the many interesting people who are part of my work life. Increasingly, I am unable to separate the people in my life into categories: I am fortunate to work with people who have become dear friends, and even had the pleasure of having friends who have become colleagues as well.

Here’s an approach I can get behind:

Focusing on work-life “integration” instead of work-life “balance” has at least a couple of implications: First (and the one that I like the most) is that we can stop feeling guilty about scheduling calls during our vacations or checking our emails at night; and by the same token not feel guilty about talking with our spouses, friends, and family members during work time.

The second implication is that we no longer split up our time so rigidly between “work hours” and “non-work hours.” Instead, let’s be flexible about when and how we accomplish both our work goals and our personal goals. Obviously some of this has to be negotiated with others, both at work (who is on call for customers?) and home (who gets to use the car?). But the point is to make this a natural part of how we organize our lives instead of a special perk or exceptional situation.

While I’m very lucky to have a workplace that supports this kind of integration, not every employer has seen the light. But I think we’re getting there. At least, I hope so. Because one thing we know is that happy employees are capable of incredible things.

I encourage you to read the entire article, and the comments, too.