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Surprising Science

Losing the Plot: The Work-Life Integration Story

What’s the Big Idea?

My brother-in-law, a tenured professor at Osgood law school in Toronto, sent me an article yesterday. “This will interest you. Anne-Marie is a rockstar academic!” The rockstar academic wrote of why women still can’t have it all — an interesting article from a unique vantage point, shared by some and not by others.

No sooner had this article been circulated, than it began to unleashed an expected storm of reactions. Some people were pitting Slaughter against a rock star of the corporate world: Sheryl Sandberg, while others wrote about how men can’t have it all and others are off to prove how they ‘can’ still have it all by defining things for themselves. You can choose which party to attend, depending on your own take on women, careers, and having it all. I am here to frame the discussion in a larger context, the context of work life integration.

The struggle for ‘having it all’ is a big part of almost every working woman’s career. Some of us struggle more than others, whether that’s due to the resources available to us or the expectations that others lay at our door step. Sometimes the struggles are made more difficult by our personal definition of having it all. Either way, this struggle faced by women is symptomatic of a larger struggle going on in the corporate world. It is the struggle to break out of archaic models of managing people, their time and their lives.

Corporate cultures demand a relentless level of connectivity and dedication at the expense of all else. The debate on ‘having it all’ is, at its heart, a work-life fit debate. Thus it’s important that we move beyond the discussion of ‘who’ has it and ‘how much’ to talking about ‘what’ are the enablers to reach the fit and the balance, whatever that might be for the author of each view point.

What’s the Significance?

The more things change the more they remain the same

The boundaries of work and life have broken down but it is our mental models of how work ‘ought’ to be done is what really needs fixing.  The demand for work/life integration is high, but the response from organizations is either absent, adhoc, and/or poorly defined. It’s also often laden with value judgements about who ‘ought’ to get the benefit of work life policies, and what the use of such a system truly entails.  If we want to create organizations and careers where we ‘all’ can have it ‘all’ (whichever way we choose to define it) then we must recognize the following:

  1. Work life fit is needed and desired by all people. Not just those who are higher up in the business hierarchy, and not just based on gender; not just those on part time jobs or just those who are high-performers (a metric often used by the corporate world to dish out the work/life fit candy). Work/life fit is not the right or privilege of any one group. If you have a life, if you work, you need work/life fit. The color of your skin, your age, your gender, your rank, your marital status or being a parent does not qualify you to stake ‘exclusive’ claim to the struggle. Why is it so difficult for us to give to others that which we demand for ourselves? The recognition that we are all in this together is the first step towards a mindset change.
  2. Work life fit is defined differently by all people. In my workshops on work/life integration, at the start I ask the participants to give me their definition of work/life fit. Responses range from “If work is your life, then you have balance” to “I just want to be happy doing what I want to do, when I want to do it.” This is when the penny drops. If there is no universal definition of the ailment, how can there be a universal cure?
  3. A client of mine in Singapore is struggling to help her employer understand that flex work should be allowed so she can be with her child. It’s not acceptable to her for a nanny to raise her child. The employer must learn to respect this choice. As research by the Center for Creative Leadership shows, some of us are ‘work firsters’ while others are ‘integrators’ and still others are ‘family firsters’. Of course, we may change preferences as we go through our careers and life. Anne-Marie Slaughter was a work firster when in Washington, then chose to be an integrator. That’s fine too. Understanding that your ‘fit’ is not my ‘fit’, and my own definition of fit may not always remain constant, allows for a more open dialogue to take place. This enables ‘made to order’ employment relationships to emerge and thrive. 

    1. Work life balance does not exist. Many of us are thrown off by the idea of balance. Should living your life be like walking a tightrope? No it should not. The imagery of balance has done incredible damage to the way we think of trade offs between work and life. We believe one must happen at the expense of the other. Give up the romantic notion of balance — that is what you can’t have. The idea of balance, like many other ideas floating around in the field of management today, was rooted in a time and space where the home and work were strongly separated. That was a time when compartmentalization was possible and encouraged, due to strong division of gender roles. This is not the reality of life today. This recognition allows one to approach the issue in a manner more in tune with the times we live in.
    2. If Anne-Marie Slaughter had written her article in the 19th century, she may even have been institutionalized for it. Not today. Women and men are trying to redefine the expectations ‘for themselves’ and ‘of themselves’ to create a work- life fit that works. These are important considerations and conversations.  

      As we discuss and debate the many plot lines that define the story of work life integration, let us always keep the larger picture in mind. While the definition of the struggle and its solution is personal, the larger institutions and policy making must be adapted to make that customized response possible. Till the time that is happens, as Arthur Ashe would say, start where you are, use what you have. Do what you can.


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