Should We Be Fighting Against Work/Life Integration?
About a month ago, I published an interview with Dan Schawbel, managing partner of the “Gen-Y research and management consulting firm” Millenial Branding. In that interview, Schawbel spoke at length about what he calls “work/life integration,” which is pretty much the opposite of work/life balance. According to Schawbel, work/life integration is the wave of the future, and work/life balance is an outdated concept that no longer applies in our technology-driven world.
I was inclined to agree with Schawbel, as I saw — and still see — evidence of work/life integration all around me. I chat with my friends via Skype while typing up articles for this very website. At home, I often conduct research for articles and tweet from the company account. At least one officemate here at Recruiter HQ has had golf shoes delivered to the building. It used to be that work and life were two separate facets of existence. Now, work is just another part of life.
But not everyone likes the idea of work/life integration.
Curiously enough, around the same time that Schawbel introduced me to the concept of work/life integration, organizations in Germany and France were doubling down on work/life balance. The German labor ministry “banned managers from calling or emailing staff out of hours, except in emergencies,” according to IBN Live. Slate reports that two groups of employers in France worked with French unions to establish an “obligation to disconnect,” which would guarantee that independent contractors who work for those employers get a “minimum daily rest period of 11 hours.”
I’ve only recently learned about these occurrences (I’m embarrassed to admit that), and they’re currently giving me pause: if people are fighting work/life integration so fiercely, they must have a reason. Was I wrong to go with the flow of technology? Should we be swimming against the tide?
The Problem With Work/Life Integration
We have technology to thank for the erosion of work/life balance. Before smartphones and the Internet, it was relatively easy to leave work at the office (depending, of course, on what line of work you were in. But for concision’s sake, let’s stick with the generalization). But now that we’re always connected to one another, we’re always connected to work, too. The laptop you’re using as you unwind after hours? That’s the same machine that your boss is trying to reach you on. It’s sort of a cruel joke.
Schawbel’s take on the situation is that we need to embrace work/life integration. The boundaries between work and life are gone, but this opens up new possibilities: yes, we’ll have to work at home, but now we can also live at work. Work/life integration means flexible hours, ample break time, projects that tap into our passions and values, better relationships with coworkers — the list goes on and on.
But perhaps this is only the romanticized version of work/life integration — the version wherein work just becomes another part of life. What if there’s a more sinister iteration in which work subsumes life?
The Boston Globe’s Beth Teitell reported on that picture of work/life integration just last month: “Late-hour work e-mailing [sic] sends unsettling message.” Teitell’s article interviews quite a few employees who are fed up with bosses who email or call them at all hours, interrupting their sleep schedules and their lives outside of work. Many of these employees feel they have to be available at all times — even if their companies say they don’t — because, as Teitell puts it, “the employee who sleeps through a 3 a.m. e-mail [sic] risks losing out on business.”
Americans work a lot. On average, we work about 1700 hours per year — far more than the citizens of most other Western nations. We’re chronically tethered to our phones, too: 65 percent of us have slept with our phones on or next to our beds. A full 80 percent of Americans put in so much time working outside the office that they effectively work one full extra day per week. Worst of all: 50 percent of people who work outside the office do so because they believe they have no other option — they have to work after hours.
Is this what work/life integration looks like: life on work’s terms, instead of work on life’s terms?
Maybe the French and the Germans are right. Maybe we need to fight to re-establish work/life balance, even as technology is trying to destroy it completely.
Then again, maybe not.
On the Bright Side …
Here’s the thing about the version of work/life integration in which work trumps life: it’s bad for business. In fact, it’s empirically, demonstrably bad. To quote Sara Robinson of Alternet via Salon:
… increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output (as Henry Ford could have told them). Most modern-day managers assume there will be a direct one-to-one correlation between extra hours and extra output, but they’re almost always wrong about this. In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time.
Here’s why. By the eighth hour of the day, people’s best work is usually already behind them (typically turned in between hours 2 and 6). In hour 9, as fatigue sets in, they’re only going to deliver a fraction of their usual capacity. And with every extra hour beyond that, the workers’ productivity level continues to drop, until at around 10 or 12 hours they hit full exhaustion.
Pushing employees to work extra hours outside of the office is inefficient, and everyone loses when we do it: employers get shoddy work; employees lose their personal time. Of course, Robinson is specifically talking about extra hours “in the office,” but we can apply it to working outside the office, too: the fact remains that it’s the extra hours that degrade output, regardless of where employees are made to work those hours.
Which means work/life integration comes with a built-in safety mechanism. If employers realize that using technology as an excuse to make employees work longer hours only hurts productivity, they’ll (ideally) give their workers the breaks they deserve. Look, I realize we don’t live in a utopia. There are plenty of bad managers who will disregard this fact, but they’re a whole different problem, and maybe next time we’ll focus on getting them fired somehow …
But back to the point at hand: armed with good reasons to not abuse work/life integration, we find ourselves working with the romanticized version again. This time, it’s more realistic. The flexible schedules, the choice of location, the ability to get work done when it needs to get done without missing out on life — all of these things now stand open to us, untainted by overbearing managers.
In a perfect world, of course.
Until then, maybe the Germans and French really are right.