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Leading executives know that work-life balance is an important retention tool. Many have spent years developing policies and programs — often shaped by direct employee input — designed to help their workers more adeptly juggle the demands of their jobs and their personal lives. Now, just when they thought they had a handle on what their staff want and need, they find they must pivot because a new concept is gaining traction in the business world: work-life integration.
Work-life integration isn’t exactly a new idea, however. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business has a Work-Life Integration Project that it launched in 1991 to “produce knowledge for action on the relationship between work and the rest of life.” And that was before the advent of the digital economy and the notion of a 24/7 work culture, when the once-distinct lines between work and life really started to become fuzzy for many professionals.
Do a quick search online and you’ll also find many articles on the topic of work-life integration from the past few years. One piece in Fortune went so far as to declare that “Work-Life Balance Is Dead,” and reported: “Increasingly, people are rejecting the notion of ‘work-life balance’ in favor of another metaphor: ‘work-life integration.’”
But what is work-life integration and how is it different from work-life balance?
The University of California Berkeley and the Haas School of Business offer one explanation. These employers no longer use the term work-life balance because it “evokes a binary opposition between work and life.” They describe the difference between the two concepts: “The traditional image of a scale associated with work-life balance creates a sense of competition between the two elements. Work-life integration instead is an approach that creates more synergies between all areas that define ‘life’: work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health.”
Millennials driving evolution toward work-life integration
So, work-life integration isn’t about compartmentalizing “work” and “life” — turning off one part of your life temporarily to focus on another. Instead, synergy is the name of the game. With work-life integration, work and life are blended together in a way that aligns with the interests of and meets the unique needs of the individual.
The truth is that professionals have been moving toward work-life integration since technology has made it possible to work from pretty much anywhere at any time. Anytime-anywhere working is also one reason why work-life balance initiatives became so important for hiring and retention. The more work began to creep into life, the more workers wanted to reclaim their personal space.
And generally, work-life balance efforts appear to be working well for finance leaders and their teams: In a recent survey from our company, 65 per cent of Canadian workers characterized their work-life balance as good or very good. Nearly two in five respondents (36 per cent) reported they have greater balance than three years ago.
So, why is there so much talk about work-life integration if employees have been demanding more work-life balance and these initiatives appear to be having a positive impact?
One reason: In today’s workplace, there is a lot more emphasis on the individual. Millennials are driving this to a large degree. A new report from Financial Executives Research Foundation (FERF), Robert Half and author Michael S. Seaver, Creating a Leadership Pipeline: Developing the Millennial Generation Into Finance Leaders, explains that millennial workers are looking for “customized and personalized careers” that can help fulfill their desire to express their individuality.
So, for this demographic group, which includes Gen Y and Gen Z, it’s important for their work and life to be intertwined to some degree because it gives the work more meaning — which in turn creates more job satisfaction.
Ask your staff what will make them happy
If your employees — and potential hires — start asking what the organization does to support work-life integration, how do you respond?
Well, if your business is a strong proponent of employees’ maintaining work-life balance, you may already have a partial answer — especially for millennial professionals. Consider this insight from the aforementioned report: “Millennials’ need for balance means senior finance leaders should consider offering an a la carte menu of work-life balance options, such as on-site daycare, casual dress, flextime options, telecommuting, bike commuting and mental health services.”
Flexible schedules and wellness programs are also key aspects of work-life integration initiatives. So, if your business is already offering employees these options, you have a head start. However, simply rebranding your work-life balance programs isn’t the solution. While work-life integration is admittedly challenging to define, it is definitely different from the traditional idea of work-life balance.
As opposed to the somewhat mythical quest for balance, work-life integration is a real opportunity for employees to gain more control over their life and career and how they devote time and energy to both. And making it happen requires a supportive employer who sees its workforce as a team of individuals.
To determine what your finance staff needs to be successful, ask them. After all, they are the best people to offer insight on what will help them to be more engaged, productive and satisfied.
As part of these discussions, emphasize what outcomes the business expects and requires, even as it adapts to meet the needs of a changing workforce.
By communicating and working together, you and your employees can develop a culture that fosters work-life integration in a way that fits the unique needs of the company and its people.