“Work/life balance” has long been the holy grail for employees. Most of them crave it but have found it hard to come by, even when they work for employers that publicly claim to support it. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront how hard it is to achieve this kind of balance. After all, if you can’t balance work and life when you’re home all day, how are you going to do it when offices reopen?
Maybe that’s because work/life balance isn’t really what most of us are after. Maybe it’s time for a different term, one that more accurately describes what we all really need.
I’d like to trade in the “work/life balance” slogan for something more tangible: compassion, understanding and community. If we have these things and—most importantly—feel we are being supported, I think we’ll be able to create the type of environment that everyone wants.
As a CHRO, I have worked in two of the most stressful industries: financial services and public relations. I grew up in a “face-time” era (and I’m using that term in the literal sense), where you showed your commitment by being in before your boss and leaving after them. You had to be physically present—remember, it wasn’t even possible to do your job anywhere but in the office.
The current shift to remote work has eliminated that requirement—hopefully for good.
But many HR executives who are now tasked with implementing new work policies still remember the days of staying at the office until the work was done. We didn’t ask for favors or flexibility. And even when people no longer need to be physically present, it’s easy for us to fall into old habits of expecting them always be “on.”
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that, although we are the ones who are “in charge,” it’s us who need to learn to adjust.
As a “rule follower” my whole life, the trend toward more remote work over the past few years felt funny to me. I personally was never comfortable doing anything but coloring in the lines. That all changed, however, when I became a suburban commuter with two babies in under two years. I had no choice but to make some modifications so I could be a great employee and colleague, and now also a great mother.
While uncomfortable, it was time for me to adapt and accept my new reality. Interestingly, what I realized was that it was not my boss or my colleagues who had trouble accepting this, it was me. My work family showed me more compassion than I was showing myself.
This kind of compassion will be more important than ever as people start returning to the office. During this period, everyone has faced different challenges, whether they are caring for children, helping elderly parents, living with an essential worker or coping with a lot of time alone. The impact of those challenges won’t suddenly disappear when we reopen. But there are ways CHROs can make the transition easier. Here’s what worked for me:
- Stop making excuses for what you need. When you are at the top of your game, people don’t question your coming in late or leaving early to get something personal taken care of. Your reputation speaks for itself, and colleagues know that you’ll always get everything done and done well—give yourself that credit. While you might be sweating it, stop feeling guilty or apologizing for what you need to do to make your life work.
- Love what you do. Feel like you are moving the needle and that the time you put in is really worth it. Be a voracious learner and mentor others. Make sure the work feeds your soul.
- Work with people you genuinely like. While this may not always be possible—after all, we don’t typically choose our colleagues—research has shown that having friends at work has all kinds of positive effects. When you look forward to seeing your colleagues, it changes the game and blurs the lines between work and personal in a good way. We care about each other’s families and interests and enjoy being together socially, as well as working together professionally. I leave one family in the morning to go to another.
- Include work in life, and life in work, and don’t feel like you can’t talk about one with the other to prove you are fully present. My 4-year-old, Ben, often asks me about my day when we are cuddling before bedtime. He knows I’m proud of my work, and he’s clearly proud of me.
After almost 25 years in the workforce, I’ve found my center. Trust prevails with both work and family, and I really can be there for everyone who needs me.
To accomplish this, I’ve learned I have to be honest and, at times, show vulnerability. That’s hard for me, and probably for others as well, but that’s what bringing your whole self to work and finding balance really means.