Brantlee Underhill is managing director, North America at the Project Management Institute. Views are the author's own.
As the pandemic has made clear, the concept of work-life balance has been redefined.
The old definition — if it ever was genuinely accurate — was that "work" took place from 9 to 5, and "life" happened outside those hours, as if there were dividers between our working and non-working hours where we could or would only experience one facet of life at a time. Or maybe this supposed duality was the expectation pre-pandemic, and what I believe has contributed to the lack of being fulfilled in the wholeness of life. Yes, we have choices, and it's great that we can choose this or that. Overall, if we aren't clear on our purpose or why we are doing what we are doing, our chances of living with fulfillment will be limited.
Today, in a trend accelerated by the pandemic, millions of working professionals worldwide are operating from home offices or in other remote locations. They may proactively be moving to places farther away from the office they were commuting to because they can! We may feel a sense of freedom in this untethering to a work office, or even a sense of loss; loss of being in the company of work colleagues, in a defined and purposeful location, away from the distractions of home, and even those dualistic boundaries between work and personal time.
While the sudden move to work-from-home in March 2020 sent shockwaves through organizations (and families), remote workers have found that working from home has distinct advantages. According to research we conducted at Project Management Institute (PMI), 76% of workers feel they are more productive than they were six months ago. And much of that increase in production stems from taking mindful steps toward a concept I call work-life fulfillment.
Work-life balance is no longer "the thing." What is, however, is work-life fulfillment. To live a fulfilled life requires each of us to be clear about our "why," the outcomes aligned to that purpose, and prioritizing the path to achieve those outcomes. When I feel fulfilled — be it at work, home, outdoors, or any other part of life important to me — everyone benefits from a happier me. I feel on top of the world or at least ready to conquer the next mountain.
Just as the pace of work and technology has accelerated, so, too, has our need to purposefully adjust our personal operating systems to this evolving way of working and living. Leadership in our workplaces needs to ensure a proper mix of expectations and empathy for all team members. Start by taking employees through the "Why" exercise and inspire them to act.
For work-life fulfillment to be achieved, everyone within an organization must prioritize this notion, especially its leadership, to open authentic conversations. Topics on employees' minds today center on the necessity (or lack thereof) of working in offices and whether they should open again, the engagement of remote employees, the culture of diverse workplaces, and creating a sense of belonging. The conversations happening today may not be what the "mad men" envisioned decades ago, but today, we are creating allyship and welcoming a whole new era.
This pursuit of work-life fulfillment appears to be working for many of the world's new remote workers. Perhaps that's because we've also said it is more than okay if your children or housemates appear in the background of video meetings, or if you commit to workouts several mornings per week or if you need some time off to care for a family member.
Nevertheless, juggling responsibilities while working from home can be a daunting task, especially for those who are unaccustomed to this mishmash of "work" and "life" that seemingly has no defined boundaries.
To help professionals overcome these challenges, and to optimize the likelihood of work-life fulfillment, here are five tips to be mindful of as each of us — and the team of workers we support — navigates this work-life evolution:
- Take time to decompress throughout the day. It's okay to go on a walk around the block in the middle of the day or to take 10 minutes to call or text with a friend or family member — use your calendar as a tool to help weave these breaks into your workday. As the PMI survey revealed, many workers prioritize taking breaks during the workday (46%) or even exercising (39%) which they hadn't typically done before. And they're finding it's a boon to their mental, as well as physical, health. At PMI, we even instituted "no video Thursdays," where our cameras are turned off, and we can take a break from always being on screen.
- Communicate and collaborate. While remote work has its advantages, it reduces or eliminates opportunities for impromptu hallway chats with colleagues or unscheduled meetings. By taking the time to talk to managers, direct reports, and teammates regularly — like scheduling standing, catch-up meetings — your employees can make sure everyone is okay and that the workload is fair and achievable. Many applications have quick chat and scheduling features that make it easy to know when a teammate is available or occupied to reach out at opportune times. Knowing someone else cares and is open to help is a surefire way to avoid burnout or frustration.
- Focus on employees' power skills. While the latest technologies and the skills to apply them are helping transform how we work, successful teams are also mindful of their power skills — like empathy, collaborative leadership, communication, a for-purpose attitude, and an innovative mindset. Another PMI study — Tomorrow's Teams Today — revealed that executives are looking beyond the technical realm when evaluating talent, realizing that power skills hold the key to project success as well as work-life fulfillment.
- Don't put training on hold. Workers are busier than ever, but they must pursue continual learning and career growth opportunities, especially as the war for talent heats up. Looking for ways to reskill and upskill will ensure they "future-proof" themselves in a dynamic work environment and provide opportunities to grow within your organization.
- Finally, keep an eye on the clock. It's easy to keep one's nose to the grindstone in a remote work environment and spend endless hours in a work bubble. Maintaining a sensible work schedule will keep employees productive, on track with their goals, and ready to enjoy downtime after hours. Encourage employees to delay responding to emails that aren't urgent once the workday ends, or schedule non-urgent emails to send at a specific time so that the recipient doesn't feel inclined to respond if it comes across well into the evening. These practices will help to set boundaries without stifling productivity.
Remember, we all have choices, even if it's how we choose to frame our mindsets. Work-life fulfillment is achievable. When professionals make the necessary adjustments aligning to their "why" and living the priorities for all facets of life, they'll achieve productivity and satisfaction levels that redefine their view of success.