Is work-life integration the new work-life balance?

by Ryan Plank
work life integration

The idea of “Work-Life Integration” is trending. You may have seen leaders discussing it on LinkedIn or read think pieces about it in major business news publications.

The concept assumes that the binary pursuit of work-life balance has become outdated and inefficient in an increasingly connected world. But what is work-life integration anyway? And do the benefits really outweigh the drawbacks?

We took a closer look at work-life integration to find out what it is, how it works, and how it compares to work-life balance.

What is work-life integration?

Work-life integration means finding a healthy way to allow all the elements of work and life to coexist harmoniously.

As UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business puts it, work-life integration “is an approach that creates more synergies between all areas that define “life”: work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health.”

Essentially, work-life integration is the pursuit of doing things at the best time to do them. The concept removes the rigid boundaries of the work-life balance approach and avoids the strict compartmentalization of work time and personal time.

Whether you’re an early riser who can complete most of their workday tasks before lunch or a night owl who does their most focused work in the evenings, work-life integration encourages you to be more productive by choosing the work schedule that works best for you.

Work is a part of life, and work-life integration seeks to acknowledge that fact.

How does it work?

The key to work-life integration is to find a synergy between work time and personal time that is fluid and adjusts to fit each individual’s needs.

For the most part, work-life integration is a response to advancements in technology that have given workers the ability to bring their work home much more easily.

New technologies have also made it much easier to do things like schedule recurring tasks, set reminders, and track productivity. Work-life integration takes advantage of those technologies to enable workers to integrate many aspects of work-life and personal life.

In order for work-life integration to work, those implementing it need to develop a keen understanding of how and when they work best. They need to find out where and when they work best, learn how to use technology in the most beneficial way, measure their productivity over time, and be willing to adjust if things aren’t working.

It’s not just about working whenever the mood strikes, but planning to work when you’ll do your best work.

Is it worth it?

The rise in remote work and flexible work arrangements in recent years, which exploded during the pandemic, has made working from home more common than ever before.

The popularity and success of work-from-home has been well documented. Many people now see remote work as an expected perk rather than some alien concept. But that doesn’t mean that work-life integration is the right approach for everyone.

There are some trade-offs when it comes to the work-life integration approach. If left unchecked or improperly managed, the same synergy that it strives for can become a burden. Workers that don’t take the appropriate time to focus on rest and self-care can experience burnout that puts a strain on their well-being and their abilities as a professional.

There are at least two potential dangers when considering work-life integration. For one, the idea of redrawing the boundaries between work and home life can snowball into a complete loss of boundaries altogether. Without these boundaries, some people will lose the ability to segment work life and home life and instead end up working significantly more hours than they were confined to a typical workday.

Those seeking to implement work-life integration must be diligent about scheduling and tracking their work hours to avoid burnout.

The other potential danger of work-life integration is reduced productivity due to a lack of focus caused by disjointed work hours.

As numerous studies have shown, sustained periods of uninterrupted work are essential to staying productive. Cal Newport’s popular book Deep Work perfectly demonstrated both the benefits of maintaining focus on one specific task at a time and the perils of distractedly shifting from task to task. Fragmented attention has proven to be detrimental to productivity.

Work-life integration can make deep work more difficult to achieve. Just scheduling your workday isn’t enough. The way you schedule it has to be strategic, planning for two to three consecutive hours of focused work at a time. One effective way to plan strategically is by using a time blocking strategy.

Work-life integration vs. Work-life balance

The idea of a work-life balance was formed in a different era when it simply wasn’t possible to bring your work home with you. When the sun went down on the farm, your shift ended at the factory, or the office closed up for the night, work was over.

Even at the dawn of the computer age, before the ubiquity of high-speed internet and mobile phones, leaving the office meant leaving your work behind with it.

That separation of work and personal life was clear and easy to follow. It had the benefit of providing a simple and common structure that neatly compartmentalized “on” time and “off” time. It also had the drawback of limiting all types of workers to the same 40 hours per week.

Today, technology has connected everything. It’s now just as easy for you to FaceTime with your loved ones during the workday as it is to take a Zoom call with an international client in the evening.

This allows work-life integrators to schedule work tasks, life duties, and personal time at the times that make the most sense for them. It means that many workers can work when they’re at their most productive, but also that any time is work time.

Work-life integration isn’t for everyone. Neither is work-life balance. Every individual worker has their own distinctly different personal life, so the best way for them to make time for work and personal life is different too.

Work life integration

5 steps to implementing work-life integration

1. Experiment

The first step to implementing the work-life integration approach is to find out what work-life integration means to you. For some it will be starting early to complete the most difficult work tasks before a relaxing afternoon. For others it will waiting until the evening to focus most intently on work.

Everyone’s work and home life needs are different, so work-life integration will look different for everyone. Rather than assuming that a particular method is right for you, do some experimenting with different methods to find what truly works best for you.

2. Track

While you’re experimenting with work-life integration styles, track how effective each different method is.

One of the best ways to do this is through time-tracking and productivity software that will be able to give you detailed workday insights on when and how you do your best work.

There are also a wide range of scheduling and time management tools that can help you better understand which methods work best for you.

3. Strategize

Now that you’ve experimented with different styles and tracked their effectiveness, develop a strategy that will help you best execute on your ideal work-life integration plan.

Use the insights you’ve gathered and compare them with the non-work duties and activities that are most important to you to make a consistent schedule that you can stick to for an extended period.

4. Execute

This is where the rubber meets the road. Put your strategic plan into action. Follow the schedule that you’ve developed and begin to build it as habit. The longer that you can cinsitently execute on your plan, the more likely it is to effectively stick.

5. Adjust

Finally, be open to adjusting your strategy. As your life and work change over time, so will your ideal work times. Even the changing of the seasons can shake up your day-to-day.

That means you’ll need to repeat these five steps often to ensure that you’re always using your best work-life integration strategy.

Major life events like switching jobs, getting married, having kids, or moving to a new place can completely change your priorities and the way your work life interacts with your home life.

Make sure that the way you integrate them changes with it.

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