In 1995, I graduated from business school and began working for Families and Work Institute developing and implementing work+life strategies. I often joke that I’m probably the first, and last, student to walk the halls of Columbia Business School publicly professing the desire to become a work+life strategy consultant. But my previous experience as a line manager at a bank had opened my eyes to an irrefutable truth: it’s a strategic imperative to help employees flexibly manage the way work fits into their lives day-to-day and at major career and personal transitions. It’s not just a nice thing to do. Unfortunately, my conviction was often greeted with a confused, “what?” Remember, this was 1995.
Undaunted, I began my work at FWI with gusto. But two seemingly insurmountable roadblocks continued to stymie progress:
- Every time we talked to leaders about “balance,” they’d visibly physically shutdown. Heads bobbed and eyes glazed over. And, they weren’t alone.
- Individuals were paralyzed by the frustration of never achieving “balance.” No matter how many programs were offered or flexible work arrangement policies were written, “I don’t have balance” or “I’m out of balance.”
“Balance” wasn’t working. So, I tried to redefine it. For leaders, I’d patiently explain, “Balance doesn’t necessarily mean working less. It means working better, smarter, more flexibly.” For individuals, I’d point out, “There’s no right answer or 50-50 split between work and life.” But to no avail, the reactions were the same. Something had to change. But what? A tiny word, “fit.”
#1 Reason Work+Life Fit* Matters and Makes a Difference: Everyone at all levels becomes part of the same conversation. They recognize the uniqueness of their particular “fit” and the business benefits of greater workplace flexibility.
Finally, one day, a senior executive saw my “balance” struggle and took pity. He candidly confessed, “Look, Cali, no matter what you say every time I hear ‘balance’ all I hear is ‘work less.’ Plus, I don’t have any kind of balance. In my job, I never will.” Suddenly, I heard myself say, “Exactly, you have a work+life fit that works for you and your circumstances, and everyone in this organization has a unique work+life fit that’s going to change many times over the course of their careers. The trick is to create a flexible culture and operating model that allows all of these different work+life fit realities to coexist in a way that meets the needs of the individual and the business.”
That’s all it took. Miraculously, for the first time, a line leader not only listened to the importance of giving employees greater flexibility, but he was engaged. “Actually, you’re right, “he said, “I do have a work+life fit,” and he began to share aspects of his personal life that he consistently tries to fit into his busy job. He also understood that his circumstances (e.g. plenty of financial resources, stay-at-home spouse) were different from many others in the organization.
Simply adding “fit” replaced disinterested defensiveness with understanding recognition. The result was a more productive conversation about work-strategies that would create a more flexible culture and way of operating. Roadblock removed.
#2 Reason Work+Life Fit Matters and Makes a Difference: Individuals stop focusing on what they don’t have, “balance,” to see the work+life “fit” they could have.
After more than 15 years of trying, it’s clear to me that the battle to redefine “balance” is lost. I wave the white flag because it’s impossible to get people to see that “balance” is anything other than an unrealistic 50-50 split between work and the rest of life. These mythical scales we fruitlessly try to equalize have locked us in a death spiral of frustration.
Breaking the cycle requires that we all think about how we can flexibly “fit” work into the other parts of life given our unique circumstances. As was the case with the senior leader, when we do this, suddenly the spell is broken. You begin to strategize about possibilities, and solutions.
In addition to focusing on what you could have versus what you don’t have, the judgment of our own work+life fit choices, and those of others, disappears. If there’s no “right” answer, then as a long as it works me, my job, and my life, then fine. And, you understand that your employer can provide flexibility in how, when and where you work, but you also play a role in crafting a fit that’s a win personally and for the business. Roadblock removed.
MomsRising joins the work+life fit conversation with The Custom-Fit Workplace…
Seeing the positive impact of this simple language shift, I became a work+life “fit” evangelist spreading the good word to anyone who would listen. In 2000, I began to write my book, “Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You,” which was published in 2004, thinking that would do the trick. But old habits die hard, and for a long time, “balance” continued to derail many attempts to create the flexibility that mirrors the way we actually need to live and work today. Then, things began to change…
About three years ago, Families and Work Institute and other respected work-life researchers began to talk about work-life “fit,” and now MomsRising is joining the conversation with The Custom-Fit Workplace by Joan Blades and Nanette Fondas.
By putting their might and reach behind the “fit” movement, hopefully even more leaders and individuals will move beyond the “balance” roadblocks and make flexibility in how, when and where we work and live real.
Leaders will understand the personal and business benefits of a custom-fit workplace. Change is scary and making workplaces more flexible involves change. Therefore, the knee-jerk reaction is often, “Okay, I hear you, but where’s the research proving that flexibility manages costs, increases productivity, and attracts and retains talent? Where are the case studies?” Well, look no further than The Custom-Fit Workplace. Clearly and concisely, Blades and Fondas present the data and the stories that support, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that giving the people the flexibility they need is strategic imperative with measurable business impact.
But leaders aren’t the only ones who will benefit. More individuals will stop focusing on the “balance” they don’t have, and begin to see the possibilities of the work+life fit they could have. There’s only the “fit” between work and life that’s a win for you and your job. It’s an employee-employer partnership capable of unleashing tremendous untapped personal and business potential. And we need it now more than ever as the economic recovery struggles to sustain momentum.
So, welcome to the work+life fit conversation! Give The Custom-Fit Workplace to your friends, your family and share it with your boss. Let’s finally move beyond the “balance” roadblocks and make flexibility happen. “Fit” matters, and makes a big, meaningful difference.
*We put “+” between work and life to symbolize that work and life are one and the same, not separate.
Cali Williams Yost is the CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc. , strategy consultants who work with organizations and individuals to make flexibility a lever for profit, growth and work+life fit. She can be found atwww.worklifefit.com/blog.