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How to build work-life balance in the digital era

Work-life balance. It’s a topic that dominates conversations at the dinner table, policy debates around the globe, and the headlines of wellness and business news. The balance metaphor itself is hotly debated with working mothers, for example, recognising the myth early on and why they can’t have it all.

There’s no doubt that we are all craving a better integration of our work, family, friends, and self, and yet the more focussed our gaze in the digital era the further balance feels from our grasp. In 2019 the World Health Organisation categorised burn-out as an occupational phenomenon — a far cry from predictions made by past futurists, who believed that the advent of a technological-first world would lead to unbound leisure and limitless personal freedom. Which has many mental-health experts wondering where we’ve collectively missed the mark? 

With the arrival of COVID-19 we now have had to integrate our lives overnight as our homes became our offices, schools and only places to relax. Our prior attempts to maintain a level of equilibrium between our work and home identities now have to be rethought and innovated on as we move from triage mode to adaptation – an exciting opportunity. 

As we all try to understand our new post-pandemic world, in the article below, we look into ideas around how the topic of work-life balance and boundaries should be conceptualised, and some tips to help you start to integrate the parts of your life to reduce conflict between roles and improve your wellbeing. 

Adapting the way we think about balance 

According to business scholar Stewart Friedman, a primary stressor around the idea of balance starts with the way we think about it. Working as a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Friedman founded an integration project in 1991 intending to “produce knowledge for action on the relationship between work and the rest of life.”

Friedman positions that a more realistic and gratifying goal is to think about balance as an integration and less about separation, so that we can find a blend between work, home, community, and self. The idea being that while switching-off and building boundaries is an essential part of longevity and curbing burn-out, it’s more helpful to understand balance as an active verb that is constantly evolving and not a static noun that we will get right every time.  

…a more realistic and gratifying goal is to think about balance as an integration and less about separation…

Stewart Friedman

The idea of integrating isn’t new. Psychologists Jeffery Greenhaus and Saroj Parasuraman also studied the idea of integration and saw it as an inescapable part of working life. They described positive integration as “when attitudes in one role positively spill over into another role, or when experiences in one role serve as resources that enrich another role in one’s life.” 

Research also shows that it’s almost impossible to draw concrete lines between our work and personal identities and emotions. Both positive and negative work and non-work experiences will spill over into our personal and professional lives — we know all too well the feelings that can linger after a tense meeting or friction with colleagues. However, the overarching thought here is that if we can positively integrate the two parts of our worlds into one another — as opposed to focussing all our energy on trying to separate them — we are more likely to have more positive associations with how both worlds fit into one another. 

Ideas of work-life integration throughout history

While the idea of integrating our physical spaces into one that combines home and work may seem like a new idea in 2020, the ‘workhome’ has a long and wide-reaching history.

Before the Industrial Revolution, home and work for many were in symbiosis. This is reflected in architecture across the world, from the Japanese machiya homes, to shop-houses in Malaysia and the medieval English longhouses. 

From history, we can see that while defining boundaries in a new work-from-home, digital era may be new for us, it’s a concept that many through history have had to navigate (minus the technology, of course.) A child interrupting a workplace meeting on a Zoom call, or a postal delivery coming while you present a pitch may ask us to normalise the realities of all of life and find a collective understanding of balance that works on an individual level, that’s different for everyone.  

The possibilities of what this means for families, our cities (big and small), as well as businesses is huge and something we all need to explore. The coming of technologies and mindsets that allow work-from-anywhere could inspire greater family connectedness, enhanced local networks of neighbours and friends, and create distributed company hubs that span greater geographical networks than the major cities.

How to find balance and set realistic boundaries 

1. Define what an integrated life looks like for you

While there are common tropes used for work-life balance principles like leaving work at 5pm or turning off your email notifications on weekends, these ideas are sometimes not realistic for the companies or roles we work within. And from the research mentioned above, we can see that rigid rules — which we end up punishing ourselves for breaking — are not always helpful for our overall mood or feelings towards balance. Instead, assessing our individual needs, family circumstances and desired lifestyle can help us shape our definition of what a good life looks like. 

Lysn psychologist, Nancy Sokarno, believes lasting boundaries are attached to your values. “When building boundaries, it is important to factor in your value sets. We all value and want different things, so it’s important to take the time to understand when you feel disrespected, uncomfortable, or when things get “too much” for you. Check-in with your feelings, assess past circumstances where you have felt “off” about something and become self-aware when engaging in work/social situations. Assess what is a value of yours when it comes to emotional capacity, personal information, and physical space.

Lysn psychologist, Nancy Sokarno.
Lysn psychologist, Nancy Sokarno.

Taking the time to think about what you value and how your values intersect with your work, allows you to more accurately build boundaries that are important to you. 

Ideas to set your values and boundaries 

Create a mindmap: Take some time to think big picture and dream about what you value, what you like about yourself, and what brings you joy. Some examples include: acceptance, creativity, integrity, generosity, spirituality.

Create a “no” list: What do you need to say “no” to in order to live more consistently with your values? Even just writing this down can help you identify your values clearly. If you have trouble saying “no” to people, remember saying “yes” to something means you are saying “no” to something else, time is finite.

Tip: Create a ‘no’ list for this week. What do you need to say no to in order to live more consistently with your values?

Perform an energy audit: Write down what you want to invest your time and energy into. Rate them from 1-10 according to how much energy they give to you and identify what changes can you make?

Write down your values in four key areas: work and education, relationships, personal growth, and health and leisure. Rate how consistently you are living with these values. Focus on one area where you are living inconsistently with your values and set a goal to live more consistently with what matters to you in that area. For example, I value quality time in my relationships, and I’m currently rating myself 6/10 in this area. I could set a goal to spend 2 hours per week with one person each week, rather than spreading my time across multiple relationships. 

2. Identify how you structure your work 

While there is a call to integrate our lives, research also suggests that people tend to manage their work-related and non-work-related tasks in specific ways:

Segmentors: Segmentors are those who like to create rigid boundaries between their personal and work tasks. They strive for focus and like to spend dedicated time to either their family, hobbies, or work tasks. Ask yourself whether you feel more calm, focussed, and energised from segmenting work, or do you find it stressful to sit and focus for long periods of time? 

Integrators: Integrators are those who don’t mind blurring tasks and switching between the two. Integrators are comfortable performing work tasks during “family time” and doing family tasks during “work time.”

Identifying how you like to work, or what is more realistic at this stage of your working and personal life can allow you to make tactical decisions around the structure of your day. Whether it’s turning off your notifications to focus on deep-work, starting your day earlier, or simply multi-tasking between keeping children entertained while you finish a report, being able to identify how you work best (or what is reasonable in your circumstances), can help you make mindful decisions about your work. 

Below are some specific ways you can identify how you will segment or integrate with your work and home life. 

Your space 

Once you’ve identified which persona (integrator or segmenter) you lean more towards — you may even have elements of both — you are more able to evaluate how you would like to divide or allocate work within the spaces you inhabit. If you work in an office, you may like to complete all your work at your desk before going home. If you’re an integrator, you may like to be home early to cook dinner and are happy to finish your emails before bed. 

If you’re working from home, you may want to define clear work boundaries with a home office, or you may find you work better at the dining table, kitchen bench, or on a comfortable couch. 

Your time

While everyone has 24-hours in a day, your scheduling needs are likely different to your co-workers in some way. Children, pets, appointments, parents, health, hobbies, and exercise all play a role in shaping how we spend our time within each day. Based on your personal needs and those who depend on you, understanding how you like to work can better serve your scheduling needs. Whether starting earlier and taking a longer lunch break to go to the gym, or taking short breaks in between your work to perform quick cleaning sprints trialing different ways of scheduling your time can allow for you to curate a schedule that works for you. 

Your availability

Working within the digital era has meant that connectivity is instant and can take place from anywhere at any time. However, this makes it hard to switch-off from your work and spend uninterrupted time with yourself and those you love. While the work itself is one part of our jobs, the other is communicating with our colleagues. For some, finding space might look like making yourself available for a set of time and only allowing communication between those hours. For others, they may choose to extend the hours they are available and take on other personal responsibilities within traditional work hours. 

3. Set allocated time to switch off 

While there is a call to rethink how we see balance or integration, psychologists and health professionals still believe that the need for dedicated rest and separation from our work identities is an essential step to longevity within the workplace. 

“If we do not allow ourselves to wind down, we can become irritable, stressed, and find it hard to engage with family and friends. Burn-out (being overworked and not recovering effectively) is a common issue that occurs when people do not get the opportunity to switch off, says Nancy. 

“As technology advances, it makes work demands easier. However, we also feel obliged to be available all the time as we don’t have to commute or assign a specific time for work and home life.

“It seems as though we feel we need to validate our positions at work and keep accountable making sure that other people in our team can “physically” see we are doing the most at work.”

Whether it’s allocating time for emails on the weekend, or setting automated notes to colleagues about when you will respond, by clearly aligning your boundaries with your values, you are more likely to find an interaction with technology that works for you. But one important step is finding a significant portion of time offline from your work. Is this easy? Definitely not. Especially if those around you have no boundaries or have not thought about how they integrate their lives. But your future self will thank you for it.

While we have lived within a digital era for some time, our new global challenges and an increase of the speed at which we live has asked us to approach our work and life identities in new ways.

While balance and boundaries are different for each person, the idea of space and time out is a human need. And until we reach ways to put humans at the centre of technological value propositions and augment our capacity in healthy ways – we will need to be patient with ourselves, and consistently approach balance or integration as a metamorphic process that changes and shifts alongside the demands of our lives. It should be an opportunity for growth and learning and not another reason to feel guilty about not “having it all”. 

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