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It could have been an awkward moment: my preschooler jumping on my lap during a Zoom meeting with my CEO. Let the children reveal the fragile barriers we erect between life and work. In the traditional work-life balance model, our two worlds are supposed to stay separate.
Remote work has taken us into the future, but I wonder if it is also taking us back to the past. Work-life integration isn’t really a new concept when you think about it. when i read Little house on the prairie with my son, we see that life and work overlap in housing. Work and parenting are almost indistinguishable. Should these same principles apply to the digital world? How tin Do these same principles apply to the digital world?
In the old normal, my son getting on the Zoom call might have been seen as a violation of the sanctity of a work meeting. Instead, my CEO put on the rabbit ear filter to become a welcoming, non-threatening figure.
The result is that my peers are no longer strange or strange to my child. He feels connected to me even when I’m working and sees what work really is; it helps him envision a future for himself beyond a once-a-year “take your kid to work” day. My job has become real in his mind, instead of something that mom takes away eight hours a day and deposits in a mysterious void.
Related: From work-life balance to work-life integration: the new way forward
Breaking the veil
The reconciliation of work and family life has had a long and distinguished history. As hippies evolved into boomers, the need to reduce stress from overwork on both fronts created the idea of keeping the two domains completely separate, one impenetrable to the other, at least in theory .
Zoom meetings during the pandemic gave us an early look at the dynamics of integration. The relaxed atmosphere of the office gave way to a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of our colleagues, and at times it could feel unexpectedly intimate. The effect was humanizing.
Professional people gave way to a more nuanced appreciation of who we all are as people (some of us with families and many of us, as life continues its habit of pouring into work, with messy circumstances) . Suddenly the boundaries between work and life were not so rigid, and the almost moral obligation to enforce them began to collapse.
As this idea of integration begins to gain strength, the differences between the two models are evident: one is dualistic, the other holistic; one is rigid, the other fluid. This rigidity serves some, but holds others back.
The obligation trap
The mythical ideal of maintaining work-life balance was supposed to be liberating. It was meant to ease the guilt of spending time away from young families, but for many people with children or large family responsibilities, it hangs over our heads like one more obligation to fulfill.
When the fear of failing balance creates stress, creates imbalance, something is obviously wrong with the model. But what if managing your balance could be less about when you can squeeze in some PTO days to “unplug” and more about when you can take a nap? You are managing your health and energy on a micro level instead of a monthly level.
For managers who fear giving employees an inch if they run a mile, let me be Exhibit A on greater flexibility in work hours. When I recently took three PTO days out of state with my family, I chose judicious moments to check Slack. Colleagues were concerned, “Why are you telling us about PTO? You should be focusing on your family.”
I agreed. Absolutely. But, as I told them, I preferred to spend 10 minutes answering them while I was on PTO, rather than making them wait three days to get an answer on something I could help them with right away. Not to mention one less item on my to-do list when I get back. Flexibility cuts both ways.
Related: Is Work-Life Balance Driving You Crazy? Work-life integration is the healthy alternative
Shifting gears is the new multitasking task
As a first step toward integration, take inventory of your ability to pivot—having the ability to self-govern and the sensitivity to prioritize the most crucial needs at work or in life.
Think of it as moving pieces up and down a grid of priorities. I’m on Slack with my team all day, but I’m also working at home with my young kids and my kind domestic husband. There comes a time (an unexpected time, usually), when we “need mom.” Ten minutes from laptop to phone gives me space to comfort a leather knee or receive a handmade picture. But that doesn’t mean that every perceived need of my children should be a priority; I also know how to say “no”. My co-workers and our collective teamwork are very important to me. They are human beings, and there is a time for them to take priority too. Work and motherhood can mix.
Trust and responsibility
None of this works if you don’t meet deadlines or deliverables. What matters is the “how”. Being transparent with your manager about your schedules, availability and commitments is crucial to making the integration work.
Transparency cultivates trust. If you want to block your calendar for offline work, discuss the idea with your team. It’s less about asking your manager for permission and more about exploring potential benefits for everyone.
Then you need to prove that putting yourself in the no-WiFi zone produces your best work. Responsibility is not negotiable; after all, you get paid. In many ways, this is an even heavier test load than warming up a chair for eight hours a day.
Related: 5 Tips for Balancing Full-Time Work and Family
Integration: Putting it all together
Life and work are no longer a zero-sum game. This paradigm shift changes the relationship between employer and employee to one based explicitly on mutual trust and respect. In this new partnership, your passion for your work is matched by the company’s responsibility to you. Integration means everyone wins.
Work and family integration is not for everyone. It’s not the right model for every job or every personality. But if you feel enriched by your work and provide great value in your life, there will be less need to invent limits to an ideal.