Does Flexibility Undermine the Work/Life Balance?

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s I was fortunate enough to work in a company that offered flexibility. What that meant at the time was flexible office hours and a laptop to take home with me if I needed to be there for the repairman to work on our dishwasher. There was still an unwritten expectation that you worked in the office (mostly) unless there was an extenuating circumstance.

Fast forward 15 years, and flexibility now means mobile technology enabling us to adopt an anytime, anywhere approach to work. I’m a big fan of these tools and practices in our workplaces. There is an increase in demand among young professionals to be able to work anywhere they can be productive. As long as the work is getting done, does it matter where the person doing it sits or during what time of day she completes it? Certainly not.

However, I wonder sometimes if this flexibility has started to undermine the idea of work/life balance. On the surface, the two seem complementary in that not having to be in the office from 9-5 creates opportunities to spend time with kids while they are awake, for example. Or to blow off some steam at the gym during those hours when it is a better fit for my day. Or have a phone conversation with a colleague while I’m on a walk. Or even to sit in a coffeehouse collaborating with clients in other locations. I’ll admit to having done all these things. Flexibility is good. And as long as the work is getting done there shouldn’t be an issue, right?

But what happens when this ability to work anytime and anywhere begins to seep into areas of our lives previously unencumbered with professional obligation? Burnout. Burnout happens.

How easy is it to quickly check email on a mobile device on a Saturday morning and get sucked into an hour’s worth of correspondence? How tempting is it to check on a project using your mobile device while sitting at your son’s basketball game and then look up only to discover that you’ve missed half the action? How about sitting in the living room with your son and being so distracted by your laptop that you miss out on the important details of his day?

What started as a great perk and a leading edge way of doing business becomes one more challenge for businesses to overcome. Where does the responsibility fall? It is shared between the individual and the firm.

Boundaries are important in maintaining a balance. We all need certain times of day or activities in our personal lives to be off-limits to work distractions. So, use clear communication to set expectations with co-workers and clients about when you will (and will not) be available or respond. Practice self-discipline for those times when you are committed to personal pursuits. Stay organized and plan ahead to continue to meet deadlines and keep work flowing in a timely way. Apply productivity tools like project management software, calendars, and time management systems to stay on track. Avoid time sucks which are low value, high effort activities – and learn to delegate what you can.

Firms need to accept the boundaries. They also need to have a realistic idea of the expected productivity for employees based on a reasonable number of working hours per week. An open dialog among leaders, managers and professionals is paramount.

Anytime, anywhere work is the future of the profession. Let’s reclaim flexibility as a value driver as opposed to a burnout stimulator with better planning and communication on both sides.