I’ve recently had a number interesting client interactions that highlighted for me just how personal and how different perceptions of work/life balance are.
My client Steve* received an offer for a role he not only described as a “dream job”, but believed would never be a reality for him in the first place. This new position presented Steve with the opportunity to leverage all his experience to impact a larger system as well as a large number of people. In reviewing Steve’s offer to determine what to negotiate, I asked how much vacation time was offered. Steve didn’t know and he had to reference the offer letter to find out.
Vacation time is often a sticking point, so why did Steve seem not to care? For him, it simply wasn’t the most critical component of work/life balance. His priorities revolved around his two young sons and being not only present, but engaged in their lives. Balance for him meant having the ability, on a day-to-day basis, to be home for dinner or to coach a youth sports team. This required being able to leave the office at a reasonable time each day, not take off entire days at a time.
For my client, Helen*, on the other hand, vacation time was of the utmost importance. Recently displaced from her corporate job, her true passions were her two side hustles: her budding performing arts career and a home-based business she’d maintained for two decades. In interviewing for a new job, Helen was very concerned about one opportunity that only offered two weeks of vacation. With out of town performances and conferences to attend for her business, she knew the limited time off would affect her ability to pursue her interests.
Like Helen, my client James* greatly valued his vacation time. Single and in his 30s, James was on the fast track at work. He was willing to work long hours and respond to issues in the evenings or on the weekends. That said, as accessible as he was as work, he loved traveling to exotic international locations. For James, working for a company that not only granted him ample time to explore the world, but also respected the fact that he would be unreachable while he was gone, was essential.
I’ve also found during my work that new parents — whether they’re welcoming the birth of a new child or adding to their family via adoption — possess a considerably different set of concerns around balance. These concerns include the need to leave work at a moment’s notice for a sick baby, stopping or minimizing work-related travel, working at home vs. in the office, and so on.
For me, work/life balance has meant different things at different times. Early in my career I was most concerned with vacation time, because like James, I like to travel. But once my children came along, day-to-day flexibility was much more important than extended time away. It still is, but I’ve also realized my travel itch isn’t going away just because I have kids. Working for myself has allowed me to define (and implement!) flexibility and balance however I need to, which changes by the day sometimes.
What do all these examples mean? Simply, flexibility and work/life balance look radically different depending on who you’re talking to. Because of this, it’s imperative that we get curious about the person in front of us, what they value and how they define balance. Otherwise, we risk making false assumptions about what people want and need to be fulfilled and successful.
It also begs the question: How do our traditional views on work/life balance serve or fall short of meeting those needs? Can leadership inside organizations appreciate and respect all the ways that people might craft their lives? Or are some ways acceptable while others frowned upon?
I believe the one universal truth amid this complicated, messy issue is that everyone appreciates the ability to define this for themselves. Most of the time organizations have pre-determined ways of thinking about the issue, and if it doesn’t fit someone’s needs, they’re out of luck. For the organizations or the leaders who find creative ways to meet each employee’s needs, they are richly rewarded with engaged loyalty. Surely there is a positive return on investment to be had by treating people the way they want to be treated and trusting the work will get done.
*Names changed for privacy.
Jessica Bronzert is Founder & CEO of The Sparks Group, an executive coaching and change management firm that focuses on building capacity – not just skills – to help leaders make the changes that make a difference to them and the world.