Best Advice: Seek Work-Life Harmony — Not Balance

This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers share the best advice they’ve ever received. Read all the posts here.

In the early 2000’s, I was the parent of two elementary school kids, working intensely as an analyst with an entrepreneur husband. I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and traveled regularly for work. I remember one particular evening when as I tucked my young son into bed, he asked, “Mom, do you love your clients more than me?” His words drove an icy dagger into my heart — that fact that he could even question my love for him made me feel guilty for doing and enjoying my work.

Shortly thereafter, I attended an event about women and work/life balance. The speaker was Dr. Michele Kremen Bolton and she talked how we work three shifts. The first shift is at work, the second shift is at home, and the third shift is the one we work in our mind and heart as we review the actions and choices we made during the first two shifts. Dr. Bolton’s point is that women in particular tend to put in too much time working The Third Shift (the title of her book). Her keen advice was to manage the stress associated with working this shift by analyzing choices in terms of tradeoffs.

And that’s when it hit me — there’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s only a series of less-than-optimal compromises. I was putting undue pressure on myself, trying to attain and then maintain a so-called work/life balance – and it felt anything but balanced! And I realized from Dr. Bolton that I was spending far too much time and energy on trying to achieve the impossible.

My goal since then has been to strive for harmony between my work and personal life. So when my children ask me why I have to leave for a trip, I explain that I love what I do for work, how it gives me a sense of purpose, and that it’s important to my sense of self and well-being. It’s less than optimal that I leave them but the tradeoff of not doing my job would make me not only miserable, but a miserable parent. In the same way, I make choices and tradeoffs at work, with the goal being to optimize overall harmony, benefit, and value.

I’m very lucky now to run my own business, and to create a workplace and culture that promotes harmony. At Altimeter Group, we don’t track time off — we track results. So if you have to take off in the middle of the day to watch a school performance or take a parent to a doctor, it not only isn’t a problem, it’s encouraged. We also provide flexible work arrangements ranging from part-time to remote working. The result is we not only attract and retain top talent, we are a whole lot happier and productive.

Work places that create flexibility and hence allow for work-life harmony are becoming more necessary, especially if we want to encourage women to take on vital leadership positions. Here are the statistics from a 2013 Harvard Business School study “Life and Leadership After HBS”. For Gen X alumni — who are between 31 and 47, a prime time for child rearing AND career development — 74% of women and 95% of men are employed full-time. That means almost a quarter of women are making compromises in their career at the exact time when they need to be investing. And men are suffering too — they don’t dare ask for flexibility for fear that they won’t be seen as dedicated to job.

That’s why I heartily applaud companies like Dell who made a commitment that half of its workforce would have some type of flexible work arrangement by 2020. My hope is that more of us are able to take Dr. Bolton’s advice not to work the Third Shift any more than we need to — so that we can spend more of our energy making the most of both our work and personal life.

Photo: Michael Grab