“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

— Stephen Covey

“The challenge of work life balance is without question one of the most significant struggles faced by modern man.”

— Stephen Covey

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.”

— Thomas Merton

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”

— Albert Einstein

“Your business and your life are happening at the same time. Don’t separate them. Integrate them.”

— David Taylor-Klaus

“Work-life balance is a fallacy. Work-life freedom is the goal.”

— Richie Norton

“Work life balance is not an entitlement or benefit. Your company cannot give it to you. You have to create it for yourself.”

— Matthew Kelly

Developing and practicing a real “work-life balance” was very difficult for many people until COVID forced workers by the millions out of offices and into WFH (work from home) situations. When push came to shove in the good-old-normal days, “life” got the short end. Achieved balance was sporadic and often ineffective.

Then came COVID to the rescue. Remote work became mainstream and, in many cases, highly productive. Technology required turned out to be readily available and quite effective. Even from home. Traditional 9-5 office work started looking like a quaint practice from the distant past.

Needless to say, workers jumped at this once-in-a-COVID opportunity to create and practice a true work-life balance. As a result, both workplace and nature of work itself has changed dramatically. Forever? Pushback from employers has begun.

Return to the office pressures are building

Kevin Ervin Kelley writing in Medium’s Index publication summarized the new work-life situation nicely: “Are Companies Looking at the ‘Return to the Office’ the Wrong Way? Why it’s time to cut our losses and redefine the place of work”:

“We’re all well aware — and perhaps even tired — of reading the headlines talking about the pros and cons of working from home since the pandemic. However, it’s worth pausing for a minute to consider how much the place of work and the process of value creation are changing right before our eyes.”

“The traditional constructs of office buildings, daily commutes, office etiquette, and dress codes are becoming relics of the past. We’re heading towards some new, yet-to-be-defined future of work, which, depending on who you ask, is both exciting and terrifying.”

“If the lockdown had lasted only four to six months, we might have snapped right back into our old work habits, schedules, and routines. But now that companies are contemplating 24+ months of not going into the office, our “temporary” off-site work arrangement is becoming more of a permanent reality and is causing a serious reevaluation of the traditional work model.”

“Now that employees have gotten a taste of a better work/life balance of doing their jobs from home, many of them are already putting their employers on notice: they’re not going back to the office or the old way of working.”

“We’re all much happier not having to dress up, endure long commutes and traffic jams, and figuring out the lunch issue, daycare challenges, doggie daycare, etc. We’re now able to use this extra time to be with our family more, stay healthier, and enjoy other hobbies that provide us the balanced lives we seek and have always wanted.”

Remote work has become the new workplace and job reality

Employers’ wishes notwithstanding, back to the good-old-office just isn’t going to happen. Many workers are actively refusing to return to the office, this in the midst of a worker shortage. Employers may have to deal with the loss of some of their best people. And then, of course, there is the matter of forced COVID vaxxes to retain your job.

Just how serious are these folks about actually quitting rather than returning to a mostly full-time office situation? The so-far proposed and sporadically-enforced vaxx-mandates may help decide this for many.

A recent post had a more detailed look at this situation. The currently-broad trend toward freelancing rather than employment is growing rapidly. Nearly 40% of U.S. workers are now considered by the IRS as self-employed.

Think about it: In past, achieving an acceptable work-life balance was neither feasible technologically except for the very few, nor permitted in general by employers. What a change COVID has wrought! Both obstacles largely gone.

How can you fight the back-to-the-office pressures?

As noted above, you can simply quit (or be fired). Big decision for most. You do have to be prepared to act on this if it does not work out for you.

You can also make an effort to shift to contractor or freelancer status. This involves quitting but an eager employer can minimize many of the difficulties.

Probably the best approach all considered is to negotiate a permanent work-mostly-from-home arrangement with your current employer.

Culture clash: management vs. WFH folks

Steve Taylor writing in Medium.com has one common view of this clash: “Work from Home Is Driving Bosses Crazy. They think you aren’t doing any work”:

“Management teams around the world are feeling the loss of power as workers push back on what office work really is and how it’s done. Middle managers are finding that they have less to do and no way to look good for their bosses if they aren’t hover over their employees and attending meetings all day for “face time.” This idea of working eight straight hours a day is rapidly coming to an end thanks to the pandemic. Those companies that can adjust to this new reality sooner than later are going to lead the way to a new way of office work and attract the best and brightest workers.”

“Without people to hover over, middle managers began to complain to anyone that would listen, that we all needed to go back to the office so we could all be one big happy family again. The company “culture” was breaking down because employees weren’t physically together. The “spontaneous” synergy of creative energy was getting lost because we all weren’t in the same physical space together. Almost anyone that worked remote during the pandemic realized how poorly managers have read the new dynamics. The shift is real. You can’t force everyone back to the office full time anymore without losing a chunk of your valuable employees, especially women.”

“All of this adds up to a new dynamic that management will need to address. Trusting workers to do their job instead of watching over them constantly is the way forward. Workers are simply happier and more productive at home. Because of this you are starting to see some of the big tech companies bend a bit. Apple and Amazon both had a very anti-remote work policy before the pandemic and have bent to allow a couple of days a week from home, but many like Microsoft are adopting a less strict approach and are trying to figure out a long term hybrid work model where some people are remote, and some are in the office. Either way, the writing is on the wall and middle management will have trouble wrapping their head around this while the HR people keep watching their people leave if they don’t make adjustments.”

I really like my work so who needs a life

You may also have had this experience but I worked for a few managers and executives whose life was their work. No balance required. One president even had a bed installed in his office so he could avoid going home except on weekends. Problem was that he expected all of his troops to be similarly work-obsessed. He regularly stated that “…your work comes first, your family second, and if you have time for anything else, that comes third”. Real joy to work for. Learned a lot though in the short time I put up with this guy’s deadly regime.

Bosses like these exert a huge amount of pressure on us normal folks who do have a serious life outside of work. Hard to achieve any degree of work-life balance under these types.

The only effective way that I have ever found to deal with work-obsessed bosses is simply to leave at the first opportunity. Which I did quite often. Today, I would opt for a WFH arrangement or shift to freelancing. Not possible then.

What is “work-life balance”?

Details here are different for each of us but the common thread is work freedom. This is the ability to work from wherever you like (and are most productive) and whenever you like (subject to delivering whatever it is that you do, as required).

This means that you must be in a job that can actually be done remotely. There are still many jobs that require an on-site presence routinely. Tough to do a balancing act in these.

You will quickly see that work-life balance or freedom requires your work to be such that it can be done with location and time independence. This in turn may mean that you have to reinvent yourself to achieve this freedom. I have done this quite a few times simply for the freedom gained, not for any clear concept of a work-life balance.

The question arises as to how much importance you place on working freedom. It may require some serious sacrifices. This means that you may well have to make some difficult and often painful choices about what you value most in your life.

COVID, nasty as it has been, did provide a rare opportunity to do some major life-restructuring. Businesses and organizations have been forced to invest heavily in many cases to accommodate COVID-related changes and requirements. Many of these changes simply are not going away.

What this forces on each of us is to decide on how much work freedom we need and how much we are willing to struggle and perhaps sacrifice to achieve it.

Before 2020, this was not really a choice for most of us. It certainly is today and going forward, but it may still require some serious effort on your part to take advantage of this opportunity.

Some actually enjoy the office routine

This may surprise you but there are quite a few people who greatly value the 9-5 office routine, commute hassles and all. I have even met more than a few of these and they appear surprisingly normal. Normal? Yup.

I’d describe them as “people-people”. They need to be around and interact with others as part of their work. They are highly social. I remember them mostly as folks who regularly dropped by for a chat or to ask a question, disrupting whatever I was trying to do productively.

The majority of these social people are well-intentioned and probably don’t even realize that they are disrupting us worker-bee’s. Socializing is part of their idea of “work” and is a highly-valued part for many.

These folks probably hate the remote work isolation and lack of social interaction opportunities. People-people need others around as part of doing whatever it is they do. They tend to gravitate into jobs that require such interactions. I’ll bet you can name dozens of people like this in your organization.

Worse yet for us work-life balanced types, the socializers are often vital to the overall effectiveness of the organization. Good folks. Necessary folks.

The conflict arises when the socializers in the office start to require everyone to be in the office so they have someone to socialize with, or disrupt in my case.

The solution is broad workplace and work flexibility

Workplace and work flexibility – work freedom – have been widely available only since our first COVID visit in 2020. Prior to this nasty event, such freedom was neither technologically feasible for most nor organizationally tolerable. The office culture of the prior century as people moved to cities was solidly in place and largely immovable.

COVID changed all this. And continues to mess seriously with back-to-the-office plans. Time magazine offered these thoughts”: “Companies Are Struggling to Regroup After the Delta Variant Scuttles Back-to-the-Office Plans”:

“Employee burnout is likely not going to improve with companies either requiring staff to come back into offices while infection risks and child care remain unresolved or extending remote work once again. ‘People are leaving,’ says Lynda Gratton, a London Business School professor. ‘If they’re not leaving physically, they’re leaving emotionally or cognitively.’”

“At some companies, that’s colliding with the impatience of managers to have staff in the office. Recent research from the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago found that executives want employees to come to work in-person roughly twice as much as workers themselves would like, and 42% of workers would either quit or start looking for a new job if required to return full-time.”

Whoa! If 42% of workers ready to quit if forced to return to the office full-time is real, this is a huge obstacle. My guess is that those who are ready to jump ship are those who have found a work-life balance that presently works for them. They appear very reluctant to give up this hard-earned and greatly-welcomed work freedom.

Resolving the work freedom conflict or dilemma

Online publisher Medium.com seems to have the situation pretty well covered in “The Post-Pandemic Office Dilemma: Who Returns and Who Works From Home?”:

“As we look back on nearly a year of work-from-home data, the results have been overwhelmingly positive — with most remote employees proving to be more productive, while also enjoying the flexibility that can come from a remote setup. This has some organizations leaning toward more permanent remote work in 2021 and beyond. However, some industries are still struggling mightily, and are eager to get back to an in-office model to improve culture, collaboration, and their ability to do business with customers. Regardless of industry or role, working from home has at times created its own set of challenges for individuals as well, such as burnout, over-working, and added distractions — particularly for those in households with kids attending school online.”

Remote Work Technology. Companies have made significant investments in capabilities and infrastructure to enable effective remote working environments for their employees. That includes equipment for their home offices, and the access and controls to ensure they can complete tasks from outside the office. Some companies never made the needed investment to start with to set up their employees with the basics of a home office or home technology, so with the trends of continued remote work and need for flexible working, it is still necessary to support employees with the basics. Companies also run the risk of becoming laggards if they aren’t keeping up with the latest work-from-home technology — a concern that could impact their recruiting and retention efforts. Another issue that will need to be addressed is productivity. Organizations must find ways to stay at the forefront of technology that enables their employees both in and out of the office, to ensure prospective and current employees that the capabilities to work remotely are still in place beyond the pandemic.”

“On-Campus Culture. On the flip side, many organizations made enormous investments prior to the pandemic to create a “campus culture” for their on-site employees. These included gyms, game rooms, and other amenities and perks for in-office employees to enjoy before, during, and after work. Those investments in a positive in-office experience have been underutilized for the past year, and organizations may be eager to return and re-instill that sense of culture and community. These amenities and perks are often major incentives for companies to land top talent, but will they now go to waste if staff continue to work remotely? Is there opportunity to reimagine the perks and amenities in a more flexible way that mixes in person and remote experiences? Without in-person gatherings, there could also be negative consequences on employee morale, company pride, and an overall sense of purpose, belonging, and connection to the organization.”

Flexibility vs. Collaboration. Companies that are successful in their workplace choices in 2021 will need to optimize the balance between collaboration and flexibility. One way that organizations are exploring this is by determining the right, timely moments to use their office spaces. In this hybrid model, employees come into offices when it makes sense, but have the flexibility to work remotely otherwise. Identifying the opportunities to work onsite will likely depend on the organization, type of work and team itself, but the overall goal will be to use these moments to foster collaboration and creativity. There will also be considerations around travel for business meetings in other locations, and schedules will need to be effectively coordinated to make that possible in a hybrid-working world.”

Resolutions will be different because people and organizations are different

You may have heard this point referred to as “…there is no one-size-fits-all” solution. No surprise here but many managements are still firmly rooted in the past office culture. It may well be that they themselves are the primary obstacle to a fast, easy solution.

Management is the obstacle to my work-life balance needs? Will they change to accommodate me, or must I change (back) to accommodate them?

Each organization will resolve this “dilemma” in its own way based on its particular set of managers and workers. An ineffective resolution is likely to drive turnover up, especially among the more valuable workers who can easily find employment in a more accommodating organization.

Your hard-earned work-life balance is not gone unless you give it up

Pre-COVID, achieving a real work-life balance or work freedom was difficult and even impossible for most. Essential infrastructure and location-flexible operating processes simply weren’t there. But no longer. What you need is now available and many of you have taken full advantage of this new situation.

The question at this point is: can you keep it? How much do you want to keep it? Are you willing to sacrifice – quit – to keep your work freedom?

Feasibility is no longer an obstacle for many of us. We are still mostly working remotely or some hybrid version. The choice we face will become real only when and if employers – our bosses – start to force a full back-to-the-office regime.

If you have achieved a work-life balance that is truly good and important for you and your family, then you should be able to keep it – one way or another. Your success will depend on how hard you are willing to fight (and are forced to fight).

My bet is that most employers should be willing to work out an acceptable arrangement for their best people. And maybe nearly everyone, in this tight job market.

Some very promising signs: CNBC reports that many workers (in New York City) actually want to go back to the office:

“For many workers, the return to offices has become ‘The Great Wait.’ It’s costing employers millions.”

“Stats vary widely, but one buzzy mid-August survey by Morning Consult on behalf of The New York Times found that 45% of workers want to be in-office full-time, compared with 31% who want to be remote full-time and 24% who want a hybrid arrangement.”

“Business leaders must be mindful of workers who don’t have ideal home-office setups, or who thrive off in-person interactions, Bullinger says.”

This work-life balance can be really hard to give up

Truly great companies will adapt to the new workplace and work realities

After a lot of reading on this subject, I am very hopeful about the intent and ability of many companies to adapt flexibly and responsively to the new work situation. Productivity and worker satisfaction are at stake. Turnover is a high price to pay for rigidity.

Managers are going to learn how to manage differently. These tend to be very capable leaders who understand how important it is to move with the times. They can and will adapt successfully.

Your job here is to resist any unreasonable restrictions on your vital work freedom. If that is what you value most.

Bottom line:

Among the very few blessings of our recent COVID experience was the huge shift to remote work and its flexible scheduling and location. Suddenly, many of us had almost full control over our work and used this opportunity to create an unheard-of work-life balance. Now, many businesses are calling for “back-to-the-office” for nearly all. Goodbye wonderful work-life balance? Not at all, but it may require some struggle and sacrifice. At least today you do have a choice.

Related Reading

Wired lays out its view of the return-to-the-office quandary: “How to Prepare for Your Eventual Return to the Office”:

“AS RECENTLY AS two months ago, the 5-mile drive from the heart of Washington, DC, to my home in Arlington, Virginia, consistently took less than 10 minutes door-to-door, even in the middle of rush hour. Now that same 5-mile commute can take as long as 40 minutes. Gone, too, are the days when I could make a quick stop at Trader Joe’s on the drive home, find street parking in front of the store, and get in and out with groceries in less than 20 minutes.”

“As more employers require workers to return to the office—even if it’s just a few times a week—it’s likely that all the annoying aspects of our pre-pandemic life will start creeping back into our lives—hectic morning routines, traffic, encounters with annoying colleagues, limited time to pick up groceries, and even less time to exercise. All of the healthy habits we created during the pandemic—time for morning meditation, afternoon runs, and nightly family dinners—will be thrown into disarray, too.”

“Most people have been working from home for 18 months, and they’ve gotten used to their new habits and are reluctant to change them again,” says Kalina J. Michalska, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside. ‘We were able to get rid of the annoyances of commuting and being in an office environment, where we have to accommodate our coworkers’ perspectives and goals.’”

“Even if your manager allows you to continue working from home, you may worry about what effect remote work could have on your career opportunities if some of your colleagues are going into the office while you aren’t, she says.”

Art Markman in FastCompany has some very specific ideas about how one might go about work-life design for the changed world: “Now Is the Time to Design Your Post-Pandemic Work Life”:

“Organizations are beginning to think about what work life is going to look like in the new normal. Clearly, people were able to be productive while working from home. Many people actually found a lot to like about the work-from-home environment, including the absence of a commute and the ability to interleave work and family responsibilities.”

“Because plans for the future are in flux, now is a good time for you to have some influence on what the post-pandemic work environment looks like. But that will require a little planning.”

“Start by grabbing a sheet of paper (or a spreadsheet) and dividing it into three columns. Label them: What do I miss? What do I love? What do I do?”

“In the first column, think back to those bygone days when work was normal. Which aspects of that have you been unable to duplicate? It might have been spending time working closely with colleagues, traveling to visit customers and clients, or having a workspace with whiteboards, bulletin boards, and environments you could organize to make you more productive.”

“In the second column, focus on what has gone well in your work-from-home environment. You might enjoy the flexibility, the lack of commute, or having a private workspace most of the time. Perhaps you moved away from the city where your job is located and are loving not being tied to a particular region of the country.”

“You’d like to preserve as much of the benefit of the work-from-home environment as possible after the pandemic. Communicate with your supervisor about what you think has gone well. People in leadership positions often have strong opinions about how their employees should work, but those opinions would benefit from knowing more specifics about your experience. Provide input even if you haven’t been asked for it yet.”

“Finally, you need to start thinking more about what actions you will need to take in order to make the new work environment good for you. That way, when your organization does announce its plans for the future, you can prepare for your ideal environment. The aim here is to be specific about what you need to do — specific enough that you could put particular actions on your calendar and get them done.”

Another FastCompany article notes that employees have changed greatly over the remote work period: “How to Get Employees Ready to Return to The Office”:

“One of the success stories of the pandemic has been the adoption of remote work. A January 2021 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that 83% of employers say remote work has been successful for their company. That’s a 10% increase from a June 2020 survey.”

“Recognize That Your Employees Have Changed. The folks who are coming back to your newly distanced cubicles aren’t the same as the folks who left a year ago, Simon says. Before the pandemic, companies like banks and insurance firms may not only have discouraged remote work, but prohibited it because of security concerns. Now, not only has remote work become mainstream, but it’s happened during a crisis. Employees’ lives were often laid bare in the background of Zoom calls. Accommodations were made for the work-life collision and employees are going to expect more of the same going forward, whether they’re in the office or not, Bersin says.”

Inc magazine’s Rebecca Hinds  offers a view about remote offices being necessarily different: “Simply Replicating the In-Office Experience Remotely Doesn’t Work”:

“Many companies pride themselves on their ability to — almost overnight — adapt their organizations for remote work. And, with juggernauts such as Facebook and Twitter allowing most of their workforces to work remotely indefinitely, they’ve had reason to celebrate. Yet many companies are still grappling with inefficiencies and friction tied to remote work. Many have been trying to replicate their physical office environment in a virtual setting. But replication doesn’t often work.”

“The traditional workplace has long been characterized by synchronous communication — desk drive-by’s and watercooler conversations, for example. As employees have shifted to remote work they’ve attempted to replicate in-person interactions by scheduling Zoom meetings. The result is that casual conversations have become unnecessary meetings. Recent research by Asana, where I work, among 13,000 global workers has revealed that this replication packs a big punch, costing individuals 157 more hours in unnecessary meetings compared to last year. Those are not unproductive meetings — those are entirely unnecessary ones!”

“How long people work does not replace the actual work. For a long time, we’ve relied on the 9–5 workday as a portal into employees’ work. Those who showed up early and stayed late were often celebrated for their work ethic and ambition. But this focus on how many hours people work doesn’t work if your employees’ workspaces aren’t visible.”

“Forward-thinking remote-first companies recognize that they need to change their focus from the ‘how long’ of work — hours spent in an office — to the ‘what’ of work, or the outcomes of work. They hold employees accountable for those outcomes. And that doesn’t just require new leadership approaches, it also requires technology that enables goal and workload tracking. By shifting the pendulum towards the ‘what’ of work, companies will be able to empower their workers for success in a remote work environment.”