June 18, 2012

the work/life balance conundrum

Welcome back after a well deserved weekend! Yet another great guest post today from Rose Keating, with some great insights regarding work-life balance.

We are living in a unique time – there are currently four different generations working side-by-side in companies across the globe. As our working environment is becoming multi-generational, the issue of work-life balance is getting harder to define.  As the older generations continue to retire, the majority of the workforce will be Millennials (those born between 1980-1995) and Gen Xers (those born between 1965 – 1980).   These two generations have quite different ideas of what work/life balance should look like, and this creates a challenge for companies that are trying to satisfy their employee’s needs.

The term work/life balance implies that the two are separate entities, and that they should be kept that way.  This goal of separation and balance is becoming increasingly unrealistic, especially with the advent of smart phones.  Our work is always in our pocket.  You could be at the beach with friends on a Saturday – work email is there too.  You could be at aunt Lucy’s birthday party –work email is there too!  We are now forced to make the decision of whether we are going to work or not – over and over again each day.

The term also carries implications that work and life are in conflict with each other; it’s a battle and only one can prevail in any given moment.  Some Millennials (also referred to as Gen Y) are turning this idea on its head, and instead accepting and pursuing a blended idea of work and life.  In his post on Penelope Trunk’s blog titled, Twentysomething: why I don’t want work/life balance, guest writer Ryan Healy explains, “There is no need for me to keep work life and home life separate. The majority of weeknights you can find me in front of the computer chatting with a friend, watching TV and messing around with MySpace or Facebook. I may as well send out an email or finish up a work briefing at the same time.”  The Millennial generation grew up in world where it was normal to be plugged-in 24-7, so many don’t feel a need to disconnect from work completely when they get home each night.

Gen X has a different take on work/life balance.  They were raised by a generation that often put work before family, and as a result they tend to value work/life balance more than Millennials do.   For many Gen Xers, family is their highest priority – and as a result they want flexible hours, and the ability to work from home.  A new study from British consultancy JBA, involving almost 25,000 people across 19 countries, found that among older staff, seven out of 10 wanted more choice about their work patterns. But just four out of 10 of their younger colleagues wanted to detach themselves from the office environment.

So how can you as an employee get your work/life balance needs met?  Here are 3 ideas:

  1. Seek out companies that share your values around work/life balance When you are networking and doing informational interviews, ask questions about work/life balance and company culture. Slowly build a list of companies that appear to share your values.  Then, during the interview process, ask questions to confirm that your perceptions about work/life balance are correct.  You can do this by asking the hiring manager what work/life balance means to them, and how it applies to their life.   If you meet with potential colleagues during the interview process, ask them their thoughts on the matter as well – colleagues tend to be more candid during interviews than hiring managers.  Other great questions to ask potential colleagues who are in the role you are applying for:  How do you feel about your workload? and How much overtime do you typically work in a month?
  2. Specifically ask about HR policies.  During an interview, ask the hiring manager what the HR policies are for flexible work hours and telecommuting (or any other work/life balance item that is important to you).  Sometimes you have to read between the lines, as they may not explicitly state the policies.  If they say things such as, “I can work with you on that,” or, “I have some flexibility in that area,” - that is a great sign that there are guidelines, but nothing is set in stone.  If you hear things like, “our policy does not support telecommuting,” or, “due to our clients needs we really have to have everyone here from 8-5pm,” you will know that the manager has a hard set of rules they stick to. 
  3. Don’t be afraid to say exactly what you need.   If it is absolutely critical for you to be able to leave early 3 days per week, express these needs to the hiring manager.  The key here is timing – these discussions are best held after an offer is made, but before you have accepted.  You don’t want to start the interview process with demands for a special schedule, but it is important that you be clear about your needs before you accept a position at a new company.  

Rose Keating is a Boston-based Career Coach who specializes in working with millennial women who are in career transition.  She is a strong believer that young professionals can make a significant impact in their organization – if they have the right mindset.  She can be reached at 

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