Should We Aim for Work-Life Balance or Work-Life Synergy?
What do you look for in a job? Until recently, one of the most common answers was ‘a good work-life balance.’ But in today’s world of mobile technology and remote working, how do we separate ‘work’ from ‘life’ – and is that even desirable anymore?
Always on, always working
Remember life before smartphones and Wi-Fi? It used to be so simple. We’d go to work at roughly the same time every day, and then we’d go home. Once we left the workplace, that was pretty much it – you couldn’t exactly haul your massive desktop computer back home with you.
Today, the equipment you need to connect with colleagues and access business systems fits in your pocket, and a growing number of people are working remotely, which is code for ‘wherever and whenever they want.’
But for all the benefits that this technological revolution has brought, it has also raised some pressing issues. The flipside of being able to work anytime, anywhere is that there is no longer a clear separation between work and the rest of our lives.
As a result, many find themselves in a state of work-life limbo, checking emails in the evening while preparing their kids’ dinner, or catching up on company news instead of reading a good book during their commute. With our smartphones accompanying us everywhere we go, work can even bleed into weekends and holidays.
This ‘always-on’ work culture is a leading cause of burnout, as the lines between work-time and free-time blur. It also creates legal ambiguity, with employees frequently engaging in work that they aren’t contracted – or paid – to do.
Clearly, something needs to be done to protect employees from a culture where unpaid overtime is the norm. Organizations have a responsibility to ensure that their staff isn’t overworked and exhausted, and that means respecting boundaries around personal lives and wellbeing. Meanwhile, governments have a responsibility to ensure that workers’ rights are updated for the digital age – see France’s ‘right to disconnect’ law, for example, which came into force last year.
Is work-life balance still possible, or even desirable?
Despite the need for clearer boundaries around when we are working and when we are not, we also need to accept that technology has changed everything, and there’s no going back.
The price for being able to connect to others instantly, no matter where we are, is an inability to separate ourselves from those very same people. Barring complete technological abstinence, we have to accept that our ‘private lives’, whatever that now means, are going to be somewhat polluted (or enhanced, depending on your perspective) by emails, messages, and alerts.
We may have to accept that now and, in the future, it won’t be so easy to compartmentalize ‘work’ and ‘life’ into separate categories. As an increasing number of people work remotely, go freelance, dip their toes into the gig economy, or try their hands at a side hustle, ‘work’ and ‘life’ will increasingly overlap.
This shouldn’t be seen as negative. Technology is empowering people like never before to take charge of their professional lives and forge their own paths. It offers us not only new and exciting ways to make a living, but entirely new lifestyles altogether, defined by increased freedom, flexibility, and autonomy.
This is where the term ‘work-life balance’ seems rather outdated and negative. It suggests that ‘work’ and ‘life’ are two separate things, and that time spent working is not spent living – a zero-sum game where work takes from life, and vice versa. But as we all know, work is a part of life. And if work is enjoyable and engaging – as it can and should be – it has the power to enhance our lives, giving them meaning and purpose.
Perhaps a more fitting term would be ‘work-life synergy.’ This encourages us to aim for a life where work is an extension of who we are – something that adds to our lives, not just a way to pay the bills. Work-life synergy may not be everyone’s present situation, but perhaps in the future of work, technology will make it easier for us to work in ways that meet all our psychological and professional needs. After all, as Mark Twain said, “find a job you love doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Surely that should be our aim.