Work-life balance is defined by some as prioritizing between work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, family and spiritual development). There is an immediate problem with this definition as it compartmentalizes people’s lives in a, frankly, unrealistic and undesirable way. It suggests that people leave their authentic selves at home, like a coat, when they go to work. That’s a very uncomfortable split to be living in for so many of our waking hours. But there is so much that organizations can do to heal the rift.
You wouldn’t like me when I’m me
Why would people think that their work is something separate from their real selves? Because the work is organized in such a way that it feels alien to them. They don’t recognize themselves, with their personal talents, ambitions and values, as reflected in the work they do. However, if organizations learn to structure their work in a way that is more satisfying for employees it is a win-win situation. Not only do they have more satisfied people in the workplace, they can also tap into the energy those people bring as a result of that satisfaction.
The greatest thing an organization can do for the work-life balance of its people is to allow them to do meaningful work. As long as the organization is not asking them to do things that are unethical or harmful, there is no reason why an employee shouldn’t be willing to contribute fully to the overall goal. One of the most alienating things an organization can do is adopt a command and control structure where work and careers are artificially confined to silos and ‘climbing the ladder’. Humans have evolved beyond the stage where people have to be structured in a pyramid to get things done.
Pyramids are the enemy number one of satisfying work because the prevailing logic for doing things is not based on achieving a common goal. Each compartment (boss, department, function etc.) is striving to achieve the maximum for their own piece of turf. As an inevitable result, in order to do their job employees are asked to perform tasks that don’t make sense and waste time. In an increasingly digital world, much of what people need to do could be done from home and in flexible hours that would allow them to manage their family lives with a lot less stress. But this rarely happens because managers think they can’t “control” people properly. So employees are highly likely to think of their own life as elsewhere and their working life as something to be endured.
An organization structured for humans
It doesn’t have to be like this. People will feel more satisfaction and involvement when leadership:
- stops wasting peoples time in pointless meetings
- stops making them do stupid things
- let’s them also work from home and with flexible hours
- doesn’t ask them to do things that are bad for the environment or other people
How can this be achieved? An organization needs to be structured optimally to achieve its goal. First of all, the goal has to be very clear (this is not a mission statement). The processes that lead to achieving the goal need to be fully mapped out. The actions that lead to the daily achievement and special initiatives to achieve the goal need to be scheduled into projects based on finite capacity (real resources that are actually available). Only a percentage of people’s total hours need to be actually scheduled.
When an organization is structured in this way, as a network of projects, it is designed in a way that reflects how work is actually done, without the artificial barriers and frustrations of functional silos. This speeds up and optimizes the flow of work in all areas. It becomes very clear who is needed to do what and when and this reveals how much work can be done off-site and in “out-of-office” hours. Control is not exercised through a vertical hierarchy but through calling on resources to contribute through clearly-identified and synchronized tasks.
When an organization understands that is not isolated but part of an entire value network, then it can consider responsibly the impact of what it does on the network as a whole. Adopting a systemic approach to management means connecting the dots and seeing how the big picture affects all of those involved, for better or worse. Being profitable and working towards the common good are not a contradiction. On the contrary, the more interdependent we are with others (and this is happening faster and faster) the more it makes sense to cooperate.
Forget the gimmicks
It’s not about casual Fridays or toys in the office. It’s about designing work in a way that allows people to contribute with their whole selves.
Just giving people the possibility to contribute their best without creating harm would make a huge difference.
About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management and author of the business novel+ website The Human Constraint . This downloadable novel uses narrative to look at how the Deming approach and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation. She is co-author with Dr. Domenico Lepore, founder, and Dr. Giovanni Siepe of ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York.