Work-life balance is dead. Deal with it.

Posted on July 13, 2009 1:37 pm by | Mobile | Technology

Former GE CEO Jack Welch is causing quite a stir today with remarks quoted in a Wall Street Journal article insisting that, for women, there’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are consequences to the choices you make, Welch says, and if you’re not at work “in the clutch”—presumably because you’re home dealing with your child or taking maternity leave—you could be passed over when opportunities for promotion arise.

Whether this is cold, hard reality or an unwillingness to accommodate fundamental human biology is open to debate. The fact that men have a competitive advantage simply because they don’t give birth seems fundamentally unfair. But on the broader issue of work-life balance, Welch is absolutely right, except it’s a gender-neutral problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Unless you’re earning an hourly wage under a collective bargaining agreement, work-life balance is a relic of a bygone age.

Today, it’s all about work-life integration.

The concept of work-life balance suggests a clear line of demarcation between your job and the rest of your life. When you go home, work ceases to be a factor and you can focus on your family, your friends, your hobbies and other interests.

Here’s a Twitter poll question for you:

I can almost certainly predict the results. When I ask this question of an audience, most people raise their hands—yes, their first conscious act upon waking is to grab the mobile phone off the bedside table and see if anything pressing came up while they slept.

Seriously, when was the last time you went to work at 9 a.m., left at 5 p.m. and took no work home with you? It’s one reason I resist companies blocking access to non-work-related websites. Companies that insist employees should not be permitted non-work-related Web surfing during work hours should also accept that employees will engage in no non-home-related activities when they’re away from the office.

I excluded hourly union workers, but even this demographic is now going online to their company intranets that are increasingly accessible from home, not to mention representing their companies in conversations taking place on social networks.

Work-life integration acknowledges that the line of demarcation has evaporated, but also recognizes that the distinction between time spent at work and time spent elsewhere is equally fuzzy. If I spend two hours at home tonight doing work, why should anyone at work give a damn if I spend 90 minutes on Facebook while I’m at the office? The only question is whether my work is getting done, on time, and the quality of my work meets or exceeds what the company expects.

To a large extent, this could address the women-having-babies issue, too. I was struck by Russell Crowe’s character in “Body of Lies.” Ed Hoffman is a CIA honcho who conducts most of his business over a mobile phone while driving his kids to school or taking them to the park or getting ready for dinner with the family. It just doesn’t matter where you are or what else you’re doing, as long as the job gets done.

Work-life integration has replaced work-life balance. Now we just need the business world to catch on.

07/13/09 | 15 Comments | Work-life balance is dead. Deal with it.



  • 1.I guess I'll ask: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

    I know there are a few among the tech start-up crowd that vehemently feel that 40 hours a week is enough to be "it." The argument there is that the rejuvenation time-- the time spent bowling, skydiving, drinking-- is just as important to the work as the time with butt in chair, eyes focused on the screen.

    I'd hate to think that we, as a society, are devoting more and more time to work, without actually getting more work done. Sadly though, I think that is what's happening. If we're not suffering on a production level, then we're definitely suffering on a creativity/innovation level.

    Rex Riepe | July 2009 | Orlando, FL

  • 2.I've never understood work-life balance, which might be because I have 8 children and a sales emphasis in every job I ever had. The kids don't need me on any particular schedule, and as my father told me, "the time to sell is when you have a buyer." Neither of those lend themselves to 9 to 5.

    My kids know all about what I do for work, and they help me when they can and hinder me as little as possible. Similarly, if my clients can't deal with my needing to take a phone call from my wife during a meeting, then we're not going to do business.

    I'm surely a long way from perfect at it, but I long ago decided that I didn't have a "business life" and a "personal life" and a "spiritual life" and a "professional life", what I had was a LIFE. One life. If I couldn't tell my pastor or my wife what I did for a living, or I couldn't walk out of my office to pick up my children or volunteer at the shelter, then I had a problem. Those things have to synch up and work together, or you're going to be in therapy a long time.

    Great post.

    Chris Jones | July 2009 | Lehi, UT

  • 3.I don't ever want to integrate work and life. The two are separate, for better or worse. Corporate America is so enamored with the employee that is willing to work 90 hours a week and only get paid for 40 and that's unfortunate. By favoring policies and staffing levels that require normal human beings to not only do the work of three individuals, but to be available to work every waking hour they are mortgaging their future for next quarter?s earning statement.

    I think merging three positions into one and not monitoring, or caring, how many hours your employees work has the following impacts:

    * Stunts your company?s creativity
    * Decreases Quality
    * Increases Burnout
    * Promotes institutional knowledge loss

    Creativity and Quality in this economy are critical to companies competing for the fewer consumer dollars out there today.

    When companies increase burnout they increase the costs for the work that remains to be done, there are few backups in today?s Corporate America, and increase their HR costs by requiring more frequent recruiting efforts.

    Documentation is great, and much needed in today?s business. However, there are bits of knowledge that cannot be documented. Experience and understanding of particular product abstract concepts are often poorly documented if at call. Every time someone burns out, that knowledge walks out the door.

    Every family needs one person to be available to their children without warning and when it?s a choice between being there for your kids and being there for work at least one parent should be capable of that choice. In addition, I believe spending time with my children should not be a proximity issue. If I?m on the computer, on the phone, or texting in proximity of my child ? I?m not WITH my child.

    Sheridan Layman | July 2009 | Richmond, Virginia

  • 4.When I first saw your tweet saying "work-life balance is dead," I couldn't believe what I was reading and couldn't imagine that Shel Israel was making that argument. But of course, then I get here and see the "work-life integration" angle, which is the comment I was prepared to make.

    I absolutely agree that integration should be embraced for those jobs where it's viable, which is many of them. I think many companies support the philosophy but still call it work-life balance, which for many others means a clear distinction between work and life and no crossing of the line. Ultimately though, from a communications perspective and employee engagement philosophy, shouldn't the bottom line be the goal of getting the job done and empowering employees with the flexibility to do it? Some employees want a hard line at 5 p.m. and don't want to touch a Blackberry for work. For others, it means logging in from home at 6 a.m. so that you can make a soccer game at 3 p.m.

    I also think Rex poses a good question on whether we're working more but accomplishing less. We have lots of technology available to streamline our work, but at the same time it can create added distraction and thus subtract from focused work. I think that, too, goes back to employee choice and empowering people to create the work environment where they perform best. While I'm known to check e-mail regularly from home, I'm not sure I would want an employer who demanded around-the-clock availability. So in my mind, the bigger question becomes how we balance employee needs and preferences with those of the employer with the shared goal of getting it all done.

    Great post, Shel. Thanks for sparking this important discussion.

    Linda Russell | July 2009

  • 5.You hit the nail on the head here. I've written about the same sort of thing recently. I have no work/life balance because my job is what I love doing. My job IS my passion and it's who I am. How do you separate professional from personal when you are what you do?

    Shannon Ritter | July 2009 | Central Pennsylvania

  • 6.The question of what part our jobs play in our lives is an interesting one.

    I spent many years working as an engineer and I felt that I worked because I had to pay the rent and put food on the table. Period. However, that's not to say that I didn't find satisfaction and enjoyment in the work itself and in the camaraderie[?] of the workplace. But I suspect that the need to pay the bills is still the reason that most of us get up to go to work.

    It was only later, when, as luck would have it, I was able to run my own small software company, that I felt my life and work were integrated. But I never expected our employees to feel the same way. They had their own lives and their own reasons for working.

    The vast majority of corporate employers -- particularly in North America -- seem to feel no real responsibility for the welfare of their employees. It's obvious that their primary loyalty is to their shareholders. That's simply the way that the system works. Why the need to delude ourselves by pretending that there is anything else involved?

    Howard Harawitz | July 2009 | Halifax, Nova Scotia

  • 7.@Linda Shel Israel didn't make this argument. I did -- Shel Holtz. ;-)

    By the way, there's a lot more discussion of this going on over on Facebook, where my blog posts are cross-posted:

    Shel Holtz | July 2009

  • 8.We are so on the same wavelength around this Shel!

    I just posted last night on the topic of flexibility in the workplace for both women and men:

    I totally agree that it's more of an integration than a balance between two sides of our lives that never meet. And, it is definitely becoming more than just a woman's issue.

    One study noted in my post says that only 41 percent of employees in 2008 believe it is better the man to "earn the money" and the woman to "take care of the home and children."

    Work/live integration is something we all crave!

    Laura P. Thomas | July 2009 | Austin, Texas

  • 9.My apologies for that, Shel. I really do have you two straight in my head, but that somehow didn't make it to my fingers while typing yesterday.

    Linda Russell | July 2009

  • 10.Shel, thanks for continuing the conversation.

    Work life balance as a phrase is simply an access point to a conversation about what we value and what we want. Mostly our definitions are personal, and that's good. What balance looks like to me is going to be different from my neighbor.

    Where the problem lies is when orgs and businesses operate with expressed or unexpressed expectations that to survive in the company and climb the ladder you have to give up your life. A cookie-cutter mentality about "how life is, period."

    It's not words we're after, it's creating a life of value that benefits something bigger than ourselves. Most of us want to make some kind of contribution, and we're suffering because choosing well often seems like compromise. Or losing.

    I coach a lot of women in creating balance in their (whole) lives, and it all comes down to what Jack was saying, making choices. Fine, fair enough.

    The problem is that we're missing half the solution. Institutional change about the way we value human beings in the workplace. Very few of the women I've worked with have been inspired enough to create institutional change...not wanting to be perceived as a bitch or non team player. They're tired. Exhausted with the fight. They just want what they want, make the hard choices, and keep going.

    Underneath it all what they say most is, "I can't make my boss value my children, or raising children, even though he wouldn't be the CEO if he didn't have a mother."

    Bottom line, if there's no value for balance in the org, it's a good sign it's time to find something else.

    Lisa Gates | July 2009

  • 11.I think Welch's speech was highly ill advised and antagonistic to women. I think organizations should avoid asking Welch to speak to their group, it was that hostile.

    Alice Marshall | July 2009

  • 12.1. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.
    2. I realize your audience is primarily corporate-centric, but not all of us are. You're not just excluding "hourly union workers" you are also excluding every retail and food service (and more) employee who does not belong to a union. They (millions of them) are workers, too, are they not?

    Jim Mc | July 2009

  • 13.@Jim - Just because you can doesn't mean you should...what? Be integrated in your approach? Read my follow-up post. My point in separating hourly folks is that they, for the most part, don't take work home and don't get time for non-work-related activities on the job. If you work on an assembly line, you put in your hours, then you're done. As more and more work turns to knowledge work, people who DON'T have jobs like that find it naturally encroaching on the rest of their lives -- and vice versa. But, as I mentioned, even hourly folks (union or not) are accessing company content via the Web from home.

    One more point about unionized workers: Frequently, their contracts spell out what they can and cannot do when work-wise when they are away from work.

    Shel Holtz | July 2009

  • 14.@ Shel @ Jim

    First off, thank you Shel for this topic. I think it was well presented and has sparked discussion/awareness, as it should.

    Secondly, I'm an IT project manager in Richmond where most of my IT compatriots are hourly contractors. Many of us, across many companies, are being asked to only record 40 hours and "do whatever it takes" to get the job done. We are also reminded that there are 100 individuals for everyone of us that would love to have our job. I frequently find myself taking home work and working 55 to 60 hours a week and only getting paid for 40. My bad for not saying no, but in this economy it's quite a risk doing otherwise.

    Sheridan Layman | July 2009 | Richmond, VA

  • 15.Great headline and great post. I initially thought WHAT - but integration is spot on. However it doesn't mean that balance is dead. We do need to balance, but differently - for different people. A colleague of mine used to email out at 23:00 and we thought she was showing off her work ethic; the reality is that she took time out in the afternoon everyday for the kids. So integration - YES and balance YES

    Jon Baker | July 2009 | UK

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