Balance is Bunk: Work-Life Integration in the New Normal
Since we started officially sheltering-in-place, my toddler has taken up the habit of walking me to work. She takes me by the hand and leads me the 30 feet from the living room to my bedroom, where I’ve set up my office in our tiny city apartment. She gives me a kiss on the cheek, a hug, and a mandatory high five (I mean, why not?), shutting the door saying “Mama, you can do it!” Whenever I leave the bedroom for even the shortest break, I am escorted back to work in the same fashion. (We are still working on the concept of the weekend!)
The COVID-19 pandemic has blown open the once highly defined and meticulously drawn categories of “work” and “life”. Geographically speaking, work is now in the epicenter of life. No matter the size of the home you live in and how immaculately you designed (and soundproofed) your office, this geographical shift matters. When working from home, life is continually bursting into our workspace and vice versa. A short coffee break becomes a dance party with your kids; lunch turns into a family meeting; and work calls include cameos of colleagues’ families, roommates and/or pets.
The question remains: how can we achieve work-life balance when one seeps into another?
Professor Stewart Friedman, from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has an answer for us. He argues that we need to throw out the idea of work-life balance all together.
To be frank, “balance is bunk,” says Friedman.
In the article "Forget work-life balance—it’s all about integration in the age of COVID-19”, Friedman, founder of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, explains that the work-life balance idea started in 1980s as an increased number of women entered the paid workforce and were simultaneously trying to manage the majority of home and family responsibilities. While a worthy premise, the work-life balance concept has a fundamental problem: “it assumes we must always make trade-offs among the four main aspects of our lives: work or school, home or family, community and self.”
Friedman argues for integration, a “four-way win” between work, home, community and self. Instead of a balancing act, as if these aspects are separate entities to juggle, the challenge and joy of integration is to let these components of our lives flow into one another, resulting in a fuller and richer life.
What does this look like practically? Working from home has created a situation where integration occurs somewhat naturally. For me, integration means sharing about my work life more with my family. During my lunch break, I sit with my family and dialogue about what I am working on and what meetings I’m having. When I was in the office, this kind of conversation did not occur as often, since there was more separation between when I left work and when I arrived home. Generally, by the time I got home, I had already compartmentalized my day and moved on to family mode. With this new level of integration, imposed upon me by working remotely, I have a deeper level of communication with my family regarding work, increasing our understanding for the whole of each other’s lives and strengthening our interpersonal relationships. My work also benefits as I am better equipped to tackle work-related challenges after processing with my family; this results in reduced stress, positively impacting my health and giving me more energy for community relationships.
In the new normal, it is clear that working from home will continue to be a standard practice. This is an opportune time to develop the habit of integration, because it is already happening quite naturally in our remote situation. Friedman asserts that this habit will give us great satisfaction even if/when we do go back to the office, as we learn how to allow all the pieces of our lives to flow together, strengthen and fulfill one another, creating a more robust whole.
As far as I’m concerned, if integration means more morning walks with my toddler, then you can count me in.
About the Author
Jessica Vuk is a consultant with Morrison, working primarily in our Grants practice. To get in touch with Jessica, please find contact information for Morrison here.