Cortes and the elusive chase of work-life balance

Many employees chase the elusive pursuit of work-life balance, like the Spaniard Cortes combing the jungles of South America in the 16th century, looking for the city of gold, Eldorado.

Work-life balance for full-time workers is elusive and nearly impossible to achieve. Even the word “balance” brings to mind a Zen-like equilibrium of two opposing forces, which most of us do not experience. What gets in the way? Demands of work, home-life (especially when couples are starting new relationships or raising children), and the constraints of the various and often inflexible schedules that shape our lives. Oh, and did I mention daily commutes?

What many individuals and couples face today is how to divide the chores that make up their domestic lives, as well as meeting their work commitments and achieving their career goals. Americans are working longer and longer hours, often bringing work home from the office. The average non-exempt US employee works 49 hours a week, spends nearly an hour a day commuting, and then spends 18 hours a week on domestic chores. It piles up.

Unlike Cortes in the 16th century who searched for gold, the treasure in our affluent, digital 21st century world is time.

Workers today need to integrate the important parts of their lives in a way that meets their commitments across the spectrum. They need time for work and time for themselves for the happy pursuit of leisure, companionship and rest. When people re-cast work-life balance as work-life integration, they gain a new perspective. What are my top priorities at this time of my life? What gives me a sense of purpose? What commitments do I have? What makes me smile and laugh every day?

What is work-life integration?

Work-life integration is possible when employees know the priorities for their lives at the moment, understand their limitations, and have an employer that allows them flexibility.

An employee starting a new job, for instance, may find it important to dedicate significant time at first meeting with key stakeholders, building relationships, and learning new systems and processes. An employee with children entering their teens, however, may choose a different set of priorities. Taking the time to maintain relationships with young adults who are facing new challenges while experiencing raging hormone changes –all while having their brains rewired for adulthood–is a noble commitment.

Employers that enable their workers to successfully integrate their lives, each in their own way, receive a significant pay back. Research shows that such enlightened employers are better able to attract and retain the best workers and increase productivity. They also save $10k to $20k per employee by lowering turnover and reducing absenteeism and real estate costs.

Enlightened employers don’t achieve these gains solely with work at home Fridays, modest flextime and 4/10 work weeks, although these approaches do help. Enlightened employers allow workers and teams flexibility in time, space and place for where, when and how they do their work.

How does work-life integration work?

Employees who do most of their work with the aid of technology may be able to work at home three to four days a week, with a clear understanding of their goals and operating norms. We all know the case of the software engineer who trickles into the office later than others, but would rather program at home, uninterrupted, with a secure Internet connection. Then, there are sales people who, with true work flexibility, will spend more time with customers and less time commuting to the office “just to be there.”

Such work flexibility is not optimal for all employees. For example, researchers, assemblers, health care workers and others whose work requires face-to-face interaction, need to spend time in the office. Also, anyone who works with particular machinery, in labs or on assembly teams, needs to be “at work.” Hopefully, with flextime.

To learn more about work-life integration, I encourage you to read “The Work-Life Harried-Go-Round” in the current issue of Workforce, where I was interviewed, along with Dr. Robert Preziosi and Tom Gimbel. Unlike Cortes, you may be able to help your employees find the elusive treasure of time.

Do you have a winning strategy for work-life integration that you’d like to share?

Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant and executive coach who works with key decision makers on talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, and other strategic initiatives, such as mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, and flexible workplace. Contact Victor for a free one-hour strategy session on improving the work-life integration of your employees.  You can contact Victor at Visit Victor’s website at to download his free HR whitepapers and read more of his blog posts.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: