Redefining Work-Life Balance in an Always-On World

It is 1 p.m. on a weekday, and I am laying on the couch reading a book. Earlier this morning I got to play with my four-month-old daughter. Before the end of the standard workday I’ll have a meaningful conversation with my wife.

No, I’m not unemployed. In fact, I might be overemployed, with a main job and a couple of side gigs.

So how am I on the couch during normal working hours? Where did I find time to play with my daughter, and then converse with my wife?

Here’s the first trick: I didn’t leave home for an office this morning.

Work-Life Balance?

In an age when it seems we’re all worked to death, the phrase work-life balance has become in vogue. On some level we realize the perils of working 70 hours a week to the detriment of our leisure and family lives. But have we changed our behaviors at all?

So while we pay lip service to the concept of work-life balance, it doesn’t appear we’re doing much to pursue it.

The reasons seem obvious enough. In order to create balance, you have to move items from one side to the other. If your see-saw tips heavily in favor of work, you’d have to move time from work to life in order to create a greater balance. Do you see the majority of U.S. corporations allowing for that?

In order to create a greater work-life balance, it appears we’ll have to redefine the entire term. That brings us back to the first trick.

Removing the Office from Life

The most effective way to shift weight away from work and towards life is to remove the office from the equation. It sounds extreme, but a deep examination of the issue reveals that the office isn’t nearly as necessary as it was decades ago.

What makes the office necessary in an age of constant connectivity? With broadband internet, we can be communicating with teammates just as easily. They’re just a Skype call or Google Hangout away.

Meetings? No one enjoys them anyway and would prefer them eliminated. When everyone works remotely, meetings only occur when necessary.

Client meetings might be an issue for some companies. But how many of your clients come into your office for regular meetings? Again, in an age of constant connectivity chances are your clients are remote. If the clients can be remote, why can’t the workforce?

While there are considerable obstacles to a remote workforce, there are many advantages as well. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37Signals, recently released Remote, a book that examines the potential of removing the office from the equation. It won’t happen all at once, especially for larger organizations. But there are clear advantages.

How does this create better work-life balance?

Letting Priorities Guide You

The second trick, the one that allows me to read at 1 p.m., play with my daughter, and converse meaningfully with my wife: letting your priorities guide your day. This seems like sensible advice, perhaps even obvious. But let me ask you this:

Are you able to properly prioritize while in an office environment?

Chances are you cannot. The constant deluge of email, of people coming to your desk to ask for something, can ruin even a perfectly laid plan. Your priorities go out the window as others claim your time.

When you work at home, you gain more control over your priorities. Because there isn’t a meeting on the schedule, I can go play with my daughter when I take a 10-minute break. I can spend my lunch break sitting on my couch reading. I can even take a lengthy lunch, and take longer than 10-minute breaks, because the workday doesn’t have to fall within the normal bounds.

I can get up early, start work at 6:30, and finish up early. Even better, I can be insanely productive during those early hours, since no one is around to make demands on my time. Those high-priority tasks get attacked relentlessly, so by the time most people show up for work they’re done.

And that’s how I can justify spending some time with my wife and daughter. My important work is finished.

How’s that for work-life balance? Instead of waking up, driving to work, spending eight to nine hours inside the office walls, and then driving back home, I can work from the moment I wake up. I can work on what’s important. I can take breaks to spend time with my family. None of that is available in a traditional office, even if you work fewer hours.

Common Remote Issues

Removing the office and creating an all-remote workforce isn’t easy, nor is it necessarily the best path for your company. In Remote Fried and Hansson recommend small experiments to see how such an arrangement works. During those tests you will probably experience a few hitches in the plan. If you learn from them, rather than let them derail the whole remote concept, you can move closer to an all-remote, or at least semi-remote, workforce.

One commonly raised issue is of management. How do you manage a remote team? Sandra Lewis, CEO of Worldwide101 virtual assistants, knows a thing or two about remote team management. She lays out a guide to managing a remote team, full of useful principles for any manager. As someone who has managed a remote team myself, I fully endorse Sandra’s outline.

Can a team really function without any face-to-face time? In my experience yes, it’s possible, but perhaps not ideal. Yet without the costs of leasing an office, a company should have some newly available funds. Using them to fly the entire team to a single location for a week, or even a few days, can bring everyone together without a constant need for face time.

Have team members who need to get out of the house in order to work well? You can research coworking spaces, which will give them a desk for a reasonable monthly fee (far less than an office, of course). While this isn’t possible to do for every employee, and would indeed defeat the purpose, it’s an option for reluctant team members. Chances are most of them will prefer to work from home anyway, perhaps using the coworking option once a month. Whatever the case, options like this are easily affordable without the hefty cost of an office lease.

Completely removing the office might come as a shock to many. The office is part of our normal office experiences. If we remove it, will we not disrupt the very fabric of a company?

The answer, from the experiences of thousands of companies, is a resounding no. I myself have worked remotely for more than seven years. Earlier this year I worked in an office, and noticed a marked drop-off in productivity. Once returned to my remote state, productivity has been off the charts.

That’s just my experience, though. Can it work for you? I suggest the following action steps, which you can take right now.

  • Read Remote, preferably twice. It’s a quick read (I finished it in about 2 hours on a flight).
  • Talk to your team about their thoughts on working remotely. Lend them your copy of Remote.
  • Run some of the tests described in the book.

There is a chance that remote work is not for you or your team. But there’s an equally good chance that it’s a wonderful opportunity you haven’t yet considered closely enough.

About The Author

Joe Pawlikowski is a marketer, specializing in SEO, and writer who obsesses about health, books, and baseball. You can read his thoughts on behavior and goals at The Pursuit of Abundance.

Photo Credit: SuperFantastic via Compfight cc