According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average worker still spends less than 15 hours per day on “personal care”—which, in this case, includes sleeping, eating, leisure time, and family activities. Rightfully so, work-life balance has been a tireless buzzword for many years now—as well as a crucial value espoused by any organization worth its salt. No one wants to live for work, sacrificing family time, downtime, and the best years of their life to fulfill the demands of a job.
And let’s not kid ourselves: the rise of remote and hybrid work arrangements inspired by the pandemic has largely erased the boundary between work and home and caused burnout to soar like never before, even while many extol its enhancement of work-life balance. Did you know that 43% more remote employees work over 40 hours a week than onsite employees do?
Some workplace experts have suggested it’s time to retire the concept of work-life balance and replace it with one better suited to the needs of the current landscape. Enter work-life integration, a holistic approach geared toward artfully blending personal and professional needs. Rather than treating work and life as separate entities or opposing forces, the goal of work-life integration is to attain true synergy.
According to Tracy Brower, author of Secrets to Happiness at Work, “When there’s continuity between your personal and professional life, work can be part of a fulfilling life. Work-life integration is the key to work-life fulfillment.”
Work-life integration vs. work-life balance
Work-life balance refers to the harmony between an individual’s work-related obligations and their personal life, ensuring that neither dominates the other. As a consequence of this overall sense of balance, wellbeing is maintained—at least that’s the aim. Allowing for flexible work arrangements (i.e., by letting employees go remote, thereby eliminating time spent commuting) is one of the key ways companies today are cultivating work-life balance among their teams. Instituting a “no emails or phone calls after work hours” policy is another common work-life balance initiative that is oh-so-endlessly-relevant to today’s remote workforce as they struggle to keep those work-life boundaries securely in place.
On the other hand, the main idea behind work-life integration is that it’s simply impossible to keep one’s professional and personal lives in separate compartments. Therefore, instead of spending energy trying to achieve the impossible, work-life integration proposes that it’s more attainable (and arguably more effective) to look for ways that professional and personal components can coexist harmoniously. This is an approach that purposefully blurs the boundaries between work and non-work, allowing employees to blend them in ways that best suit their unique needs and preferences. Implementing a policy whereby employees are evaluated based on their achieved outcomes rather than the number of hours worked encourages work-life integration, as it allows employees to manage their time as they see fit while fulfilling both personal and professional responsibilities in ways that actually work.
The benefits of work-life integration
Consider the following benefits of adopting a work-life integration approach at your company:
- Flexibility. Work-life integration allows remote employees to create the type of schedules that sufficiently accommodate their personal needs—from family responsibilities to health appointments, and personal hobbies. This is also true for managers, owners, and employers of all stripes!
- Increased autonomy. Remote employees can feel empowered to manage their tasks and their time as they deem effective, leading to a sense of personal ownership over their work and fostering a more holistic sense of overall balance.
- Enhanced productivity. A work-life integration approach allows remote employees to work during their most productive hours—whatever those may be—resulting in a higher quality of work, and improved productivity.
- Talent attraction and retention. When you offer work-life integration as a perk, you’re setting yourself up to attract top talent—the type of employee seeking a flexible and balanced lifestyle. You’re also more likely to retain experienced employees who appreciate autonomy.
The challenges of work-life integration
While a work-life integration approach can certainly have meaningful advantages, at the end of the day, it can sometimes be difficult for mere mortals to achieve a flawlessly integrated mentality. Challenges include:
- Difficulty setting boundaries. Remote employees may struggle to establish clear boundaries between work and their personal lives, leading to an “always on duty” mentality where work spills forever into personal time.
- Lack of separation. The absence of a physical office space can make it challenging for remote employees to mentally disconnect from work, leading to burnout and affecting their ability to engage meaningfully in personal or family activities.
- Inconsistent routine. Remote employees can find it difficult to maintain a consistent daily routine, which, in turn, can make it difficult to effectively allocate time for both work and personal commitments. As a result, both may suffer.
- Isolation and loneliness. At worst, blending work and personal activities can result in reduced social interaction and a lack of separation from the home environment. In such cases, embracing work-life integration can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness among remote employees.
How to establish boundaries
The ability to establish clear and healthy boundaries is a skill worth learning. For the health of your organization, encourage employees to consider the following boundary-setting tips (and be sure to set a positive example by taking your own advice!):
- Designate a dedicated workspace. Create a specific area in your home solely dedicated to work-oriented activities. This physical separation can go a long way toward signaling the start and end of your workday, making it easier to mentally switch between work and personal time.
- Set clear work hours. Establish consistent work hours—ones that are compatible with your most productive times of day and your personal commitments. Be sure to communicate these hours to your team and your family, and stick to them as closely as possible to maintain a routine.
- Manage communication expectations. Very clearly communicate your availability and response times to your colleagues and supervisors. While embracing work-life integration, it’s crucial to set realistic expectations regarding when you’ll be actively engaging in work-related tasks and when you’ll be focusing on personal activities. Integration never means 24/7 access—that would defeat the whole point.
How to support work-life integration via company culture
By fostering an environment that values flexibility, autonomy, and a healthy balance between professional and personal pursuits, company culture can play a pivotal role in supporting work-life integration. When a company encourages open communication, respects individual boundaries, and promotes the wellbeing of its employees, it builds a foundation for successful work-life integration, enhanced job satisfaction, and improved productivity. You heard it here first.
Here’s how you might promote work-life integration by cultivating a positive company culture:
- Encourage flexible scheduling. Promote a culture that values diverse working hours to accommodate various time zones and personal needs. This way, all remote employees can find a balance that suits them. This is a form of inclusivity.
- Prioritize regular check-ins. Establish a culture of consistent communication via video calls, team updates, and virtual social interactions to combat feelings of isolation and keep remote workers meaningfully engaged. After all, an engaged employee is a productive and loyal one with a sense of professional ownership—in other words, they’re capable of managing their own time.
- Recognize achievements and efforts. Create a culture of appreciation by celebrating remote employees’ accomplishments and efforts. Employees who feel valued and connected to the larger team’s success are less stressed and enjoy deeper job satisfaction.
While work-life balance and work-life integration do overlap to some extent, as both concepts aim to ensure that employees can effectively manage their professional responsibilities and personal wellbeing, they approach this goal differently. The approach that’s right for you and your organization remains to be determined.
For those who’ve managed to create a work-life balance they’re happy with, change may not be necessary. But for those who struggle with it, a work-life integration approach may just be the strategy with the highest chance of success, as it allows employees to devote extra time to work tasks or for personal matters, as needed.