The COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the lines of work-life balance.
A year ago, cloud-based software provider Mavenlink’s survey revealed that two in three workers thought work-life balance was the most important part of workplace culture. Although the concept of work-life balance is hard to define, it generally refers to an absence of conflict between a person’s professional and personal time.
But any sense of balance seemed to disappear when stay-at-home orders were issued at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The option to work in pajamas and avoid long commutes lost their appeal when paired with faulty technology, homeschooling, competing with family members for workspace and bandwidth, delayed access to business information and resources, and the knowledge that managers or co-workers expected others to be available 24/7. What once seemed like the ideal arrangement quickly soured, and stress soon set in.
Data from Ginger, an on-demand mental healthcare provider, offers a picture of US workers’ mental health before and after the pandemic began. While 53 percent said their company increased its focus on employee mental health as a result of COVID-19, Ginger’s research shows that there is room for improvement.
Almost two-thirds of workers reported that their company could do more to support their emotional and mental health, and nearly one-quarter said their company’s response was “barely adequate,” “a disaster,” or “non-existent.”
Similarly, employee benefits provider Unum surveyed more than 400 employers and found that 85 percent expressed concerns about their employees’ mental health and wellness as the health crisis continues. Nearly nine out of 10 employers felt that modified school schedules would be a challenge for employees, with 57 percent making specific accommodations to help employees balance work with those family responsibilities.
This stress has only intensified as many organizations—including Google, Microsoft, Zillow, Amazon, and Salesforce—have said that they will continue to have the majority of their employees work from home for the foreseeable future. In fact, 82 percent of company leaders that research and advisory firm Gartner surveyed said their organizations plan to permit employees to work remotely at least part of the time after reopening.
“As business leaders plan and execute reopening of their workplaces, they are evaluating more permanent remote working arrangements as a way to meet employee expectations and to build more resilient business operations,” Elisabeth Joyce, vice president of advisory at the Gartner HR practice, said in a written statement.
Finding a balance
That turn of events leaves some wondering whether separation between work and personal life—much less work-life balance—is a thing of the past. For example, a survey of 100 senior IT professionals conducted by Freeform Dynamics in association with Cisco reveals that three-quarters of participants have found it hard to maintain their work-life balance during the switch to remote work.
So, what can organizations do to help their workforces maintain balance as remote work arrangements, homeschooling, and other social distancing demands continue?
To start, talent development professionals have a prime opportunity to step in and offer training and support to employees on time management, project management, and collaboration skills. They likewise can play a role in developing and distributing new guidelines for teams and managers regarding communication practices and meeting management.
Finally, they are well-positioned to help HR and the C-suite work with the front line to define new performance management procedures and expectations. Those are practical solutions to the immediate problem.
However, there’s a broader picture to consider for the long term. That starts with companies reexamining traditional ways of working—their procedures, protocols, and measurement tools—that exist simply because of convention, asserts the Harvard Business Review article “What Will Work-Life Balance Look Like After the Pandemic?”
That means managers and employees will need to consider restructuring how work is done, explain authors Bobbi Thomason, an assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, and Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. With more employees logging in from home, they contend that companies will need to move away from the concept of an eight-hour work day while simultaneously letting go of the “assumption that a 24/7 culture is working well for anyone.”
Respondents to the Freeform Dynamics/Cisco study add that more flexible work arrangements may be the key to better balance. Forty-nine percent believe that flexible working hours are here to stay. Gartner agrees, with 43 percent of its survey respondents saying they plan to grant flex days and 42 percent saying they will provide the option of flex hours.
According to data from global staffing firm Robert Half, flexibility can take the form of windowed work—the ability to break up a workday into chunks of professional and personal time. Nearly four in five surveyed workers prefer that arrangement; of those, 73 percent said the arrangement helps them be more productive. No doubt, such flex arrangements may be particularly beneficial to workers who have children they need to help with virtual schooling.
Altering when employees are allowed to complete work isn’t the only way for companies to boost work-life balance. Employees will be able to pursue better balance during remote work if their organizations take this time as an opportunity to choose quality work over quantity of work, advise Thomason and Williams in their article. They add, “They can stop rewarding the faster response over the better response, or the longer workday over a more productive workday.”
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.