Presence (Not Balance) Is The Key to a Fulfilled Workforce

In a recent work-life balance experiment, Google’s reWork team shared a familiar warning: “Those who rigidly separate their personal and work lives are significantly happier about their well-being than those who tend to blur the lines between the two.”

The underlying argument is one I’ve heard many times, particularly working for an organization that embraces work-life-integration. People wonder, If we blend work and life too much, won’t work just take over our lives?

It’s the newest version of corporate America’s old “work-life divide” dichotomy: either you keep these areas of your life separate from each other or you’ll devolve into a workaholic state. The truth is, now more than ever our lives aren’t composed of just two neat categories (work and non-work).

We are complex and multifaceted. Industry-leading employers like Google should offer their best and brightest policies that acknowledge that reality.

Instead, Google’s study describes a reality in which “we take our work everywhere we go, on our phones and laptops. This constant connection to work can make it more difficult to clearly define where ‘work’ ends and ‘life’ begins.”

It’s not just that we bring our work into our homes; technology lets us bring our passion projects on our commutes; our loved ones into meetings; our best friends on our vacations; our errands to the DMV line. That’s the messy reality of today’s technology-enabled world: we have the capacity to bring everything with us everywhere. Because of this, we have as much to learn about setting boundaries as we do about embracing connections.

Setting Boundaries Goes Beyond Work & Life

The research Google cites categorizes people as either “segmentors” or “integrators” — either capable of keeping work and life separate, or incapable. Yet their response (employee initiatives like going dark without devices for a night) paints a more optimistic picture about boundary-setting: it’s a muscle we can choose to develop. This actually applies to all areas of our lives. Spending one-on-one time bonding with your toddler? Not the time to be planning your next vacation. Volunteering as a counselor at the hospital? Your group text chain can wait. The science on “multitasking” is conclusive, even if our habits haven’t caught up. People can’t actually do more than one task at a time. We can switch tasks, but it comes at the cost of making more mistakes, taking longer and generally being less productive.

Ultimately, refusing to set boundaries means losing our ability to be present.

The recent surge in interest for meditation and mindfulness, particularly among the tech-savvy, is proof of our need for presence. It’s particularly essential when we’re building healthy relationships with the people who matter most to us. That’s why you shouldn’t answer work messages while catching up with your partner at the dinner table. You shouldn’t really do anything else during that time.

To really understand why some Googlers reportedly don’t set boundaries, we should ask them why they don’t shut off their work. Do their leaders have unreasonable or unclear expectations? Have they received guidance on how much is enough? Many high achievers don’t set limits of their own capabilities, to the detriment of their mental health.

Companies should recognize that their employees’ lack of boundary-setting is as much a leadership and culture failure as a personal one.

Don’t Let Boundaries Keep Life Out

When employees have clear expectations, they can actually make more room for the rest of themselves at work. In the work-life balance conversation, we often assume (and fear) that work will take over our lives, but rarely consider how life could gain more marketshare.

Companies should be actively thinking about how to let more humanity into their workplaces. One important step toward accomplishing this is to shift expectations away from office time and toward employee-specific goals and accountabilities. Embracing that mindset at Live Grey has unleashed our team members’ productivity. If I know exactly what I need to accomplish this week, I don’t have to feel guilty about scheduling a mid-day doctor’s appointment, leaving early to be with out-of-town family, or taking an afternoon workout break. When I am in the office or online, I’m more present, focused and goal-oriented

Don’t Let Boundaries Inhibit Creativity

Unyielding boundaries can prevent us from building more human, flexible workplaces. They can also inhibit creativity. When we rigidly divide the pieces of our lives into separate categories, we miss opportunities to find connections between them.

Never build boundaries with walls so high you can no longer climb them.

The most innovative teams will tell you that they invite all kinds of seemingly unrelated ideas into the room. They find creative genius at the intersection of the unlikeliest combinations. Imagine if Yvon Chouinard never combined his love of climbing with his mechanical knowledge to build Patagonia, or if Jim Koch never combined a family recipe with his business education to create Samuel Adams Beer.

To flourish in today’s world, we must learn when to set boundaries and be present, but also when to knock those walls down and connect the dots.

Design guru David Carson explains it like this: “You have to utilize who you are in your work. Nobody else can do that: nobody else can pull from your background, from your parents, your upbringing, your whole life experience.”

Rather than letting the different parts of our lives become warring competitors in a zero-sum game, let’s turn them into harmonious teams. In other words, let’s forget about work-life balance and seek out work-life fit.