“Work-life balance” is often considered the holy grail of employee satisfaction.
But when you really break it down, you’ll find it’s hugely overrated and misleading.
When you think of the word “balance,” you might picture the scales of justice, where both sides are perfectly level. Balance denotes equal, though it’s sort of impossible to spend equal amounts of time working and playing. So, that picture is clearly out of sync. Sometimes you have major deadlines or projects at work that require more time spent in the office. Other times, work will be slower, and you’ll potentially have more free time to focus more on your hobbies and social life. And sometimes, life intervenes and you need to spend more time with your family.
That’s true balance. It’s not about being equal in numbers—it’s about the value to you, in the short term and in the long term.
And an equal split isn’t just difficult to maintain—it also doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness. Many people love their jobs, and work enriches their lives, just as their lives outside the office reinvigorates them to work. Some people live to work and other people work to live. Neither is wrong.
So rather than getting hung up on giving your team more vacation time or fancy perks, focus on whether they’re generally happy in their lives, or have the flexibility to be that way at all.
Balance means different things to different people.
If you don’t need many material objects to be happy, you can live in a van on the beach. If you have a laptop, you can work from anywhere, and get by on the basic essentials.
The rest of the time you can spend surfing and looking at the stars.
But many people want a little more from life. They want intellectual challenges, to contribute a product or a service to society, or make a living to support their family. For example, as soon as I started having kids, I realized that I had to work that much harder to be sure I had the cash flow to put them through school, give them travel opportunities, fund their extracurricular activities, etc. I wanted to.
Either path is fine, as long as you’re working to sustain your specific needs—and wants.
Your work informs your life, and vice versa.
My primary issue with the term “work-life balance” is that it puts “work” and “life” at odds with one another. It assumes that work is bad and life is good—and that they’re completely separate things.
But in reality, work and life are intertwined for most people. If you enjoy your job and find it fulfilling, you’ll likely talk about it at social gatherings, and spend more leisure time with people in your industry. If you have a great home life, you’ll talk about your kids at work, and you’ll be more motivated to work harder on their behalf. You might even meet your significant other at work.
When I worked at GE at the dawn of the internet age, we brought cots into the office to get a few hours of sleep during all-nighters. That might sound intense, but here’s the thing: no one was pissed off about it. We were excited about the work we were doing and knew this was the best way to have the energy to keep going.
In other words, both work and life make you who you are. When I was sleeping in the GE office, work was my life. And while it wasn’t sustainable forever, it made me happy and fulfilled at the time.
Time off is important, but not everyone needs unlimited PTO.
Although most successful people put in all-nighters on occasion, everyone needs to take time away from the office.
When I worked at Hulu, we had an unlimited vacation time policy. But to be honest, most people didn’t take advantage of it. We almost had to kick them out of the roost sometimes.
I also try to make sure they’re not just using all of their time off on obligatory family visits, because (and I think we can all agree) that’s not really a break. Same with medical appointments and procedures. Instead, I encourage my team to go somewhere new, or rest on a beach with their partner—anything that will help them actually relax.
But not everyone unwinds in the same way.
Some employees get the break they need just from working at home. So as a leader, I try to give them the space to make that decision for themselves. When they do, they’re rejuvenated and ready to tackle what needs to get done in the office.
You have to keep checking in.
Employee satisfaction isn’t a given—you have to be paying attention.
I’m a big fan of giving out free company merch, and it’s a nice litmus test for whether employees are happy. If they’re willing to wear the company logo, there’s an element of pride.
On the other hand, if you can sense employees are dissatisfied, they might just be in the wrong role. For example, at a former job at a major tech company, we unfortunately had to let many people go. In the process, we identified a number of underperforming employees and offered them very different roles at the company. The ones that took us up on it ended up being amazing, long-tenured, excellent-performing employees.
This taught me that while sometimes underperforming employees just aren’t in the best role for them, as often as they aren’t right for your company. And often, underperforming employees are also unhappy and unbalanced. Getting them back to a healthy place work-wise is the key to bringing back their work-life balance.
Ultimately, employee satisfaction is a two-way street—you have to maintain an open line of dialogue with your team.
When you shift your focus from “balance” to whether your team is happy and fulfilled at work, you’ll end up with the strongest workforce you can have.