Consider work-life effectiveness

Careers  Relationships
29 August, 2016

Instead of artificially separating “work” and “life”, try a more organic approach

We all perform multiple roles in our personal and professional lives. Not to mention the need for time for our own physical and emotional well-being. Juggling all the different priorities can certainly be a challenge.

How to attain work-life balance has therefore become a raging debate.

Frankly, though, I find the term “work-life balance” a somewhat strange phrase. It makes it sound like your work and life are two separate and competing entities—when, in fact, our professional existence is very much a part of our lives. Sustaining this supposed divide and trading one versus the other when these are both very much part of who we are seems very contrived.

Semantics aside, we understand that “life” in this context means personal time—the hours and space we need to create meaningful experiences away from the office. And that the word “balance” implies spending equal amounts of time at office and at home. But ask yourself – should that truly be the end goal?

In her Harvard Business Review article, Work-Life “Balance” Isn’t the Point, Christine M. Riordan suggests a different turn of phrase—work-life effectiveness. She explains work-life effectiveness as: ‘Work and personal life should be allies and that participation in multiple roles, such as parent, partner, friend, employee, can actually enhance physical and psychological well-being—especially when all of the roles are high quality and managed together…. One should take a holistic perspective, thinking of one’s career as an integral part of life, rather than a separate and obligatory activity.’

And drawing from this, my message this week is on work-life effectiveness and how this can be a much more meaningful approach than conventional work-life balance.

Here are some suggestions on how you could build more work-life effectiveness:

1. Define your own idea of success

If we like what we are doing, then we inevitably find time for it. Therefore, finding meaning in what you do and defining our own measures of success is critical. Measuring your life by someone else’s yardstick is pointless. Rather, you must define your own version of winning at work and in your personal life. For instance, what does professional success look like to you? Is it about changing the world in a small yet significant way? A career that challenges you to stretch your capabilities? Building something from the ground up? And what about success at home? Is it having dinner with your family every evening? Experiencing new cultures with them through frequent travel? Role-modeling the value of integrity and hard work for your kids? Buying a house for your ageing parents?

By creating clarity on such questions, our choices can become more deliberate. Instead of being buffeted around by life, we can choose to take on that which is in line with our priorities—and learn to say no to things that take up precious time without being rewarding. This authenticity is the best guarantee of work-life effectiveness, ensuring that each decision you make is in keeping with a deeply personal vision of success. Many of those who manage to succeed professionally and personally, from Bill Gates to Sheryl Sandberg, are outspoken about spending significant amounts of time and energy setting up their own goalposts.

2. Re-examine the work/home separation

Conventional wisdom in the past few decades has recommended strict boundaries between work and home. You’ve probably heard this a lot: switch off your mobile as soon as you get home, don’t check your email while on vacation, avoid being distracted by home issues while in the office, and so on. However, according to new findings, such rigid compartmentalisation may actually be doing us more harm than good.

In Keeping Work and Life Separate Is More Trouble than It’s Worth, David Burkus explains the concept of cognitive role transition:

‘When you’re actively engaged in one role, but experience thoughts of feelings related to a different role, you’re experiencing a cognitive role transition…the more separate the roles in your life, the bigger that transition.

In the workplace, these role transitions can be a source of stress. When a home-related thought creeps into your mind while you’re at the office, you experience a cognitive transition from the work role to the home role. Even if the transition is brief, it can deplete the energy and focus needed to perform at work. The same is true at home: you might be having dinner with our spouse, and suddenly a work-related thought flashes through your mind. You have to make an effort to push it back out again.’

Rather than minimising these transitions by strictly preventing any overlaps between your work and personal lives, research is now suggesting something quite different: a more relaxed cross-border policy! Having more blurred boundaries allows you to take such transitions in your stride and avoid being drained by them. So, the next time you find your mind wandering to your family while at the workplace, don’t shut it down. Spend a few moments with your thoughts, and then return to the task at hand. Ultimately, the existence of such minor intrusions is likely to make you more—not less—efficient. Similarly, if spending 30 minutes a day on work emails while vacationing makes you feel more relaxed through the rest of the day, do it.

3. Aim for overall effectiveness, not constant balance

One of the biggest mistakes many people make, especially early on, is aiming for a continuous equilibrium amongst all four life domains—work, self, family, and community. Those who have been around longer can tell you that there is no such thing! There will inevitably be times in life when one aspect demands more attention and energy than the others. Attempting to avoid this will simply cause stress (and heartache). Instead, accept the temporary “new normal” and work towards managing it.

Stew Friedman, Professor of Management at the Wharton School and former head of Ford Motor’s Leadership Development Center, recommends keeping your loved ones in the loop:

‘When a spike in work-related activities is having a deleterious effect on your family or on some other part of your life, then it’s time for what I call “stakeholder dialogues”—conversations with the people who matter most about your mutual expectations and how best to meet them, now and in the long run.’

Friedman goes on to outline the steps for such a conversation with your loved ones: explain why work is demanding more attention, clarify why this is important to you, ask how this may make things harder for them, offer a genuine apology for the disappointment that may be caused, and collectively explore solutions. This will also help to clarify your family’s expectations from you—what you assume may not always be accurate. As Friedman points out, your daughter may value you driving her to school more than being home for dinner.

4. Invest in collaboration

Whether it’s working in tandem with your life partner, creating a network of support in the community, or building relationships with colleagues, we all need tactical and emotional support to achieve our vision of success. No one can do this alone. In a Harvard Business School study with 4,000 senior executives across the globe, the researchers found that nearly all respondents insisted on the importance of behind-the-scenes supporters, from paid help to extended family to trusted co-workers. Numerous leaders explained how unexpected health issues could have damaged their careers irreparably without the compassion and understanding of bosses and colleagues. It’s also essential to decide on shared goals with one’s life partner, so that the couple can work towards them together. Your partner can offer invaluable support in so many ways: providing practical help, being a sounding board, giving encouragement, and so on. Work-life effectiveness means involving people who truly matter to you in your life decisions.

5. Embrace 100/0 

As we have discussed before, if we live by the principle of 100/0 – 100% accountability with 0 excuses, then we take full responsibility for our actions. This feeling of ownership can you make feel more empowered. If you approach life with this mindset, then you also take responsibility for juggling the different facets of your life. You feel less like a victim and more in control.

Also, do introspect on why you may be finding it challenging to manage competing demands on your time – is it you or is it the various demands? Are you perhaps wasting time? What can you do to be more productive? Can you plan better? Can you communicate better? Are you not delegating enough? What changes in your approach can you make to manage your time better?

6. There is no “one size fits all” approach

Remember that no one situation is the same. In a way, each of our careers and the things that we dealing with in each of our lives is quite different. So, we need to figure out what is right for us and then find ways to manage things effectively. As an organisation, if we want to create an inclusive workplace, we need to recognise that there are different ways to work effectively. We need to shed conventional mindsets of how, where and when work gets done. We need to focus far more on outcomes and provide the flexibility and support to bring out the best out of our team members.

Our people philosophy approach at Godrej too ties in very closely with this approach. When we recrafted our employer brand a few years ago, we identified ‘Whole Self’ as one of the three key pillars of our people philosophy. We believe passionate, rounded individuals with diverse interests make for better Godrejites. By making Whole Self central to our approach, we are highlighting that we understand that our team members play multi-faceted roles. That they are all uniquely and wonderfully different because of the choices that they have and will make. Being a Godrejite is only one of them. We don’t believe you can really draw a line between and be a different person outside of work. So, we want to encourage people to be their whole selves at work and create an enabling space for them to do so. And our different people polices and practices – flexible work options, unlimited sick leave, maternity, paternity and adoption benefits – are all designed to enable this.

So, if there’s anything to take away from all this, it’s that divide-and-rule certainly does not work in the work-life balance conversation. Rather, what we should be striving for is optimal win-win solutions that take into account all the stakeholders in our work and home lives.

I’m sure that this is something that you have deliberated on at one point or another. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences on it.


  • Sunita Devrani says:

    Such a relevant topic. This is something I constantly struggle with. Work, kids, passions, travel, fitness… and many other things I want to do. You loose grip on some.

    Thus work-life harmony seems like a better word than balance. I agree the boundaries got blurred… some time ago. Many of us make time for personal work at office and official stuff during family time.

    • Vivek says:

      Thanks, Sunita. No doubt this is not easy. And I would imagine that for women leaders such as yourself, it gets even harder. I have a lot of admiration and respect for the way you are trying to achieve work-life harmony!


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