In defense of work/life integration

photo-345I’ve been doing a lot of interviews this week about my forthcoming book, and it’s interesting to see what questions come up the most. One is about this idea of work/life integration. In the time logs I collected for I Know How She Does It, work and life did not conform to traditional divisions of when each should occur. People did work late at night, early in the morning, and on weekends. A few interviewers have seized on that as being a bad thing. Boundaries help us have less stress and not “live to work.”

I am a fan of boundaries (I am capable of turning off my phone!) And yet I think this focus on when work happens misses the point. What is equally interesting is when “life” happens. About three-quarters of women in my study did something personal during what appeared to be their core work hours. A professional might come in late to work because she read to her preschooler’s class. She makes up the hours at night after he goes to bed. It is the ability to do the latter that enables the former, and hence I think it misses the mark to label to the first good and the second bad.

Indeed, I think that enforcing strict boundaries would have the unintended effect of making it harder for women to “have it all.” Many important life events happen during traditional work hours. Mothers generally want to go to these things. Fathers often do too (there were many men at my son’s preschool graduation on Wednesday) but I haven’t really dealt with their cultural narratives in this book. In any case, if work must always happen between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., then the only way for someone to do these things that happen during the work day is to work less. We can all be more efficient, but over the long haul, working less will hamper one’s ability to get ahead.

But if work can occur at other times, then you can work long hours and go to the preschool graduation. By moving work around on dimensions of time and place, you can advance in your career and enjoy the kid moments you deem important. There is space for paychecks, hugs, and dandelions.

To be sure, I know not everyone can work this way. If you are a physician, you can’t stop seeing patients, go home, and then finish up with a few more patients after 8:30 p.m. (though paperwork could be done then, I suppose). I also know that not everyone wants to go back to work after the kids go to bed. One reporter described that as sounding incredibly dreary. It can be. However, some of us would compare our work favorably to watching much of what’s on TV late at night. If that’s the case, then I think the upsides of work/life integration trump the downsides.

In your life, do you wind up more on the integration side of things, or do you try to create stricter boundaries? Why?

In other news: Working Mother posted several videos I did about “sticky situations” that arise in work and life. Please check them out and share them!

Photo: Nap during a zoo trip.

3 thoughts on “In defense of work/life integration

  1. I would bet that the way a person frames late-evening work is closely tied to the way she feels about the job overall. You’ve written before about how important it is to find work you really want to do, and that step makes it much easier to take on work tasks at 8:30pm.

    Even within a job that I generally love, there are things I will do cheerfully at 8:30pm (reading an interesting hot-off-the-presses article? yes, please!) and things I will only do under duress (Exhibit A: grading. and if it involves dealing with plagiarism, it’s just not going to happen until the next day).

    1. @Jamie- agreed. I don’t mind working at night because I love what I do. But one writer who was discussing IKHSDI said she felt “ill with self-pity” whenever she needed to get stuff done at night. All about how it’s framed…

  2. I agree Laura. The conventional model of working hours is outdated and flawed. There are many benefits both for organisations and employee of taking a more integrated approach to life and work hours.
    We also need to challenge our own conventional thinking as often we have self-imposed limitations based on old models which stop us seeking and experimenting with other possibilities.

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