Even if it’s not an ‘official’ policy, it’s so easy to send a message or an email to someone whether they are at work or not, and so we do. It is a natural outflow of how we communicate with our friends and family; why would work be any different? The change is rooted in technology, and its growth has been encouraged by younger generations who have grown accustomed to it
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on When I Work
For years the question for you and your employees was one of work-life balance; this implied that, as blurry as the line became, there was still a line. On one side was your work, and on the other was your personal life; the trick was to balance them on that blurry line so that things were liveable.
Work-life integration is different. Here, the line is gone.
Instead of handling personal errands and needs outside of work, they’re mingled into the workday—and vice versa. Gym after work? Not anymore – now you do it on your lunch break in the middle of the workday. Work meeting in the evening? No problem.
One is about balancing two separate entities, while the other is finding a way to mix them together.
Work-life integration means learning to see differently
By helping your employees see that work-life integration isn’t really an optional approach, but the default by virtue of the nature of today’s culture, may make things less frustrating for them. Work-life integration feels like an intrusion if an employee expects work-life balance; integration feels like just part of the job, then, if they are taught to see it differently. How can this be achieved?
It starts with making work-life integration expectations clear when an employee is hired. Explain it as part of the job, and as part of the agreed salary or wage. Make sure they understand it’s under the main umbrella, and not something extra you’re going to ask of them, but not pay them for.
In this way, instead of getting upset and frustrated when work trickles into their personal life, they can learn to see that differently. Instead of an intrusion to be fixated on, it’s merely part of the job.
Provide training on how to stay engaged in a healthy way
- Help managers and employees identify the signs of burnout. This can happen at different levels for each person.
- Understand the mental health issues that stem from difficult work situations, including a sense of constantly being on call. Mental health awareness is growing in this country, and rightly so.
- Give employees methods of ‘stepping out of the loop’ that doesn’t have repercussions. If you make it impossible for them to, occasionally, remove themselves from constant contact with work, you’ll force them to lie to you as they find ways to disconnect. Perhaps you’ll make it a hard and fast rule that vacation days are true vacations from all things work, while ‘days off’ still require some connectivity.
- Provide the technology, tools and training to use those tools so that staying connected is not a burden. Each employee has a different comfort level; staying connected is very easy for some, but challenging for others. Remove the stress the latter employees might feel when faced with new technology by giving them training and touching base to be sure they are comfortable. If it’s not natural for them, it’ll be a stressor.
- Flexibility in hours doesn’t equal no structure. Work-life integration is a mix of how you use time for work and personal life, but it doesn’t need to be a state of both at the same time. Enable employees to fully enjoy their child’s sporting event; they can check emails before and after, but give their focus to their family during. That’s integration, not distraction.
Be creative in shifts and hours
You can’t have work-life integration if you insist on the standard work schedule. The whole point of it is to allow a very flexible schedule so that work activities and personal activities are intermingling. Plus, it’s not fair to expect employees to be available in some form in the evening if you don’t let them have time for personal activities during the day.
For shift employees, this might be easier to create; for other types of employees, with regular work hours, however, it will be an individual thing.
- Individual work-life integration: When employees are hired, ask them about things they need to do during the normal work day. This might include children’s school activities or college classes. Work with them to come up with a plan. During employee reviews, be sure to check in and see if their schedule has changed.
- Planned work-life integration: Set up some standard work plans if you don’t think you can handle 30+ individual approaches and still run a tight ship. Have one for parents of young school children, one for college students, one for someone working multiple jobs, and so on. Let your employees choose the option that works for them.
If you’re not convinced this kind of flexibility is worth the trouble, consider that more and more research is showing that this is one of the top employee perks you can offer. Bill Gates recently said that flexible work arrangements are the best perk you can give your employees, and Harvard studies backed him up; productivity increased, employee attitude improved – flexible work schedules are a win-win.
Sell the benefits of work-life integration
Just in case you have employees who aren’t convinced of the benefits of work-life integration, you may need to do a little selling of the idea.
Help your employees see that their identity isn’t either/or. This is about them seeing work, not as a separate thing different from their ‘real’ selves. When we see our work self as something different, we can get frustrated, irritated and resentful when work invades the space of our personal self.
When our identity isn’t separated, the flow between work and personal life is smooth and there isn’t so much internal fighting to keep them apart. Plus, it might help us to actually enjoy and care about our jobs more when we realise our work is a part of who we are.
Reduce stress based on restricted time
Work-life integration is great for reducing the crushing stressful rush before work, on lunch break, and after work during which people try to get all of their errands and appointments done in the tiny traditional work break windows.
When employees can complete personal errands at other times, they don’t have to deal with the stress of getting so much done in a rush. They also get to miss the traffic, queues, and waiting that comes with doing the same thing at the same time as every other worker.
Reassure them of boundaries
There is always the fear – particularly for effective and efficient employees – that work-life integration will be abused, and they’ll never have a free, non-work moment for themselves again. You can allay those fears.
- Make a genuine effort to avoid overloading and relying on the same employees in their ‘off hours’, especially if it is due to other employees refusing to respond.
- Create a way for employees to come to you with concerns about burnout and too much connectivity where they don’t have to fear repercussions for voicing their concerns.
- Prioritise talking about work-life integration, in relation to burnout and stress, during employee reviews.
Reward and encourage healthy habits
Reward employees who use work-life integration options to further healthy habits, such as exercising. If they want to take an hour in the afternoon to go for a walk, reward it. If they come to you with concerns about burnout, and want to find a way to combat stress and weariness, reward it.
This is where you can get creative with benefits such as health club memberships, massage gift cards, nutrition or dietician consultations — all through the workplace.
Make sure everyone is on board
Last but not least, make sure everyone is on board. This can be tough if your employees cover a range of generations, as older generations are often more accustomed to a more traditional approach to work.
Employees who have a salary are paid based on an understanding of expected hours to get the job done. Understanding this is important because the work-life integration will be a bit more time-rigid for hourly employees because all time must be tracked, while it will be more flexible for salaried staff who work to the approach of ‘However, or whenever, it happens, the job must get done’.
You may need to remind some salaried employees that they are not hourly employees.
‘I’m off the clock’ is really only applicable to a true hourly employee, but some salaried employees have that mindset. They turn off their work ‘phone as soon as they get to their car after work. They complain about getting a message or question from someone at work in the evening. You never hear from them on weekends, no matter the emergency.
Employees who refuse to participate with a team using the work-life integration approach will be a roadblock. They will make it difficult for others to get their work done and they will make the rest of the team feel frustrated, and start to complain.
Your whole team has to buy into work-life integration.
Work-life integration isn’t the creeping spread of more work, more hours, for the same pay. Instead, it’s an opportunity to live each day without compartmentalisation. When done correctly, it can lower stress, create engaged employees and help with staff turnover.
Flexible work hours represent the freedom to have a more fulfilling daily life and a healthy, more integrated personal identity.