Virtually all my clients say that they want improved work-life balance. Here are four tips from the WW work-life balance initiative I led at Microsoft.
t was awful to learn that Craig, from IT, had passed away from a heart attack while working late at the office. I didn’t know him very well, although over the past two years I had come to appreciate his ready willingness to help with my computer problems. Not being close to Craig, I debated attending the funeral service, but in the end, I decided to go. When my wife and I arrived, a colleague pulled me aside and anxiously asked, “Would you mind saying a few words about Craig?”, then added, “He considered you a dear friend.” Although I was a bit surprised by the request, I figured that several people were being asked to share their memories of Craig, so I said “sure” and began gathering my thoughts.
As it turned out, I was the main speaker at the service, followed by Craig’s thirty-something son. Only the two of us spoke to the small group of people in attendance. I don’t remember what I said about Craig, but I’ve never forgotten his son’s remarks: “I don’t really know my dad. He was never home. He gave his entire life to the company. I don’t know what else to say about him.” That was all he said, and then he sat down. As an extreme example of what can happen when someone overinvests in a single life priority, it was a profoundly sad moment to me.
Among the various important topics that my executive coaching clients bring to me, achieving work-life balance is almost always near the top. In fact, virtually all my clients say that they want improved work-life balance. I heard the same from people I worked with during my 20+ years as a CFO at Fortune 100 companies.
While serving as CFO of Microsoft North America, I led a global initiative to improve work-life balance for over 1,100 finance professionals. At the outset of this project, I read everything I could find on the topic; I also spent many hours interviewing work-life balance experts. Based on that research, our task force rolled out a worldwide training program that helped instill behaviors which ultimately improved work-life balance satisfaction by double digits. Following are the highlights I gleaned from the research, along with the associated tips we taught finance professionals.
Highlight #1: Work-life balance is a misleading term. It implies that work and life are two separate things and that one increases only at the expense of the other. The truth is, work is a subset of life’s activities and only one of the various important elements that compose a life.
Tip: Shifting your mindset to think of work as one of the several essential elements of an integrated life, rather than something separate from your “real” life, is a vital step toward finding satisfaction with the whole. To help shift your mindset, cut out the term work-life balance from your vocabulary and replace it simply with life balance.
Highlight #2: Because our individual values define what matters most to us, apportioning time to activities that are congruent with our values is key to living a balanced and satisfying life. Since each person’s values are unique to them, no two individuals’ criteria for prioritizing time will be the same.
Tip: Know your values so you can thoughtfully prioritize the activities of your unique life. Explore and record your values. A close friend, partner, or coach can help you with this.
Highlight #3: Given that most vocations involve dependencies upon others, sharing our boundaries for work can significantly reduce confusion and false expectations, which in turn lessens the pressure to extend work beyond the outer limits of our values.
Tip: Meet with your boss(es), peers, and subordinates and discuss your mutual aspirations for life balance. Share important personal routines (“I drop my kids off at school each morning.”), communication preferences (“For urgent matters, text or instant message me.”), boundaries (“Sundays are my faith and family days.”), and so on. Ask for each other's support. Memorialize your agreement via email or an informal “contract” or team charter.
Highlight #4: When it comes to juggling professional and other tasks on a given day, I have found that most people fall into two groups – those who compartmentalize tasks and those who mix them. Compartmentalizers prefer keeping work in one bucket and other activities in another. When they are at the office, they avoid mixing non-professional activities with the workday. When they go home, they avoid taking job-related work with them. By contrast, mixers prefer – and sometimes need – to alternate professional and personal activities throughout the day, both at the office and away. From my observation, neither of these styles is better than the other; they’re just different.
Tip: Determine whether you compartmentalize or mix tasks, be OK with your style, and communicate it to those you work with (see Tip #3 above). A close friend, partner, or coach can help you identify your style.
In addition to the tips I have shared, many of my executive coaching clients ask about techniques for better managing their time. Two valuable resources for improving productivity, both on and off the job, are David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and the website lifehacker.com.
If I learned one lesson from Craig the IT Guy, it was that the priorities we choose in life matter – and not just to ourselves but those around us. As I work with my executive clients, I continually strive to keep their particular values at the forefront of our coaching agenda. If I can help them more thoughtfully make choices aligned with their values, my hope is that someday they will look back on their life’s journey with a sense of satisfaction and wonder as they consider a life lived with integrity and purpose.
Note: Some identifying details in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.