Work-life balance is a much-used phrase. However what does it really mean? Let me say up-front I have never really liked the term. Let me explain why.

Too often I find people use work-life balance to describe an idealistic world where there are hard boundaries between your career and the rest of your life. It recalls the old days of a 9 to 5 job. You checked in at 8.59am and then got trampled in the rush to the lifts at 5.01pm. By 5.15pm the office had tumbleweed blowing through it. In my first job, back in 1980, that’s exactly what the culture was like. How many workplaces are like that now?

Back then the world was very different. Nobody had internet or mobile phones. Businesses – other than retail and leisure were pretty much closed at the weekends. Nobody expected to be able to contact you outside office hours. Not every house even had a telephone. Our neighbours used to come around and borrow ours in an emergency – or walk to the phone box at the end of the street. If you wanted to do research you went to a library or bought a book. Yes, there was a world before Google, iPhone or Zoom.

The world is different now

And we’ve made it the way it is. As consumers we increasingly expect to shop all day, at night and at weekends. We expect service providers to be on-line when we want them. Same day deliveries are increasingly sought after. Even next day may not be quick enough. In a global market, there is always a customer somewhere in the world craving support or attention.

What we need to recognise is that in a 24/7/365 world there is no longer a fixed boundary betweeen business and life. And how we think about work-life integration has to be different.

The world is at your fingertips

In the UK, 88% of us now have a computer we take everywhere. Email, internet, messaging, video calls, phone, entertainment and marketplaces all in one portable package. The price we pay for being connected is being accessible.

There’s no dount that acccessibility can lead to abuses. Just because we are always connected doesn’t mean it is fair or reasonable to expect us to be always responsive to our employer’s call.

We need a new concept

For years now Chiumento has talked about work-life integration rather than work-life balance. That’s about achieving a sense of harmony between your professional and personal lives which accepts a degree of overlap and underlap.

There will be times when your job needs more of your attention. That late night email or phone call. The Sunday afternoon when you have to get a proposal or report finished. Or the break into your holiday because you have unique knowledge or hold a critical relationship.

Set against that will be the times when your wider life needs to invade the work zone. The time off to go to the kids play or sports day. A few hours out to take an elderly relative to that key hospital appointment.

Work-life integration therefore hinges on creating a symbiotic relationship between employer and employee. One where both sides give the other flexibility and respect.

The Chiumento way

As a business we try to practice what we preach. We are very clear with all our staff that this isn’t a 9 to 5 environment. We are a customer intimacy business and that means putting clients before ourselves WHEN that’s appropriate. It doesn’t mean we can call you any hour of any day on a whim. However if it is really business critical we won’t be afraid to do so.

In the same way we don’t expect people to take a day’s leave to make that kid’s school play. Or make up the hours they took out to sort out a personal issue. We know we’ll get that time back somewhere when we ask them to step up. We respect that there will be times when family or relationships have to come before business.

Trust is the critical commodity in employment relationships

I really worry about businesses that don’t trust their people. Ones that monitor employees every minute of the day.

It expends a lot of time, effort and cost to micro-manage and over-supervise people. Time that could be spent so much more productively. It also risks creating a culture that’s all about inputs – ie being on time and “present”. Not about delivering results.

For Chiumento success is all about outputs – eg quality and productivity. What matters are satisfied clients and successful delegates. If someone does that, but flexes their hours should I be bothered? No.

The ultimate question for any leader is do you trust your people enough to let go? To stop managing and start coaching and empowering. To trust them rather than control and monitor them.

Work-life balance is a test of trust

For an employee the test is can I trust my employer to respect I have a life beyond the Company?

For an employer it is can I trust my people to do the right thing when the business needs them?

Get that right and you reach the balance you crave.