All “gravity glue” photography is under ownership and copyright of Michael Grab/Gravity Glue.

Not long ago, in a 1:1 meeting with a junior staffer, the subject of “work-life balance” came up. It’s an issue we are fiercely committed to always be tackling, so we ask questions about it a lot. In this particular conversation, the employee tried to call me out by keeping tabs on my own schedule. “I see you responding to emails at 6am on any given morning, and on that same day I might see you engaged in an email dialogue with my VP at 9pm. Where is YOUR work-life balance?”

And that’s when it hit me. We’re approaching the question about work-life balance from the wrong angle.

Before we ask the question, “How well are you balancing your professional and personal lives?” we need to first ask, “What does work-life balance mean to you?”

After observing me at work for a full day a few years ago, my daughter wryly observed, “Basically, your job is to write and respond to emails. All. Day. Long.” With that frame of reference in mind, here’s what work-life balance means to me:

Wake up at 6am. Immediately open email and start responding to any pressing issues that may have surfaced in my inbox from Boston and/or NYC. Get coffee. Check and respond to emails every 10 minutes or so while getting ready for work. Then spend 1+ hours commuting/working. Arrive at office around 9am. Work in office until approximately 3:30pm and then (assuming the afternoon schedule is clear) head back to the BART on the 3:41 train, working until I get home, typically around 5pm. Check email every 15 min or so from 5pm til ~6:30pm PT, then every couple of hours until bedtime. I also tend to work from home one day per week.

This works for me. I invariably feel a little guilty about heading out at 3:30pm but anyone who rides BART regularly will verify that it’s a soul-crushing madhouse after 5pm. So, MY ideal work-life balance includes avoiding that daily, horrific commuting nightmare as often as possible. I’d much rather start work at 6am and keep at it for the rest of the day until bedtime. As for that 1 day per week working from home? I’ve done too much quality writing on those days to feel bad about not being at my desk in the city.

I don’t expect this type of schedule to work for everyone. Some folks abhor the thought of diving into email before their coffee kicks in; some folks would love the flexibility to leave the office early every day (though they may shy from the prospect of being available via email from the time they wake up until the Sandman’s nightly visit); some folks might think this is a brutal routine and some others might consider me a slacker. Point is: I get my job done in the way that works best for me, my family and my sanity. It’s MY work-life balance. Not anyone else’s.

And that VP engaged in a 9pm email debate with me? She’s a single mom whose own work-life balance approach includes waiting until her kid is asleep to tie a ribbon on her day. That’s the way she WANTS to work. She has as much flexibility as she needs to pick-up her child from daycare, focus on them 100% while they are together, and then sift her way through any projects that arose in the few hours she was off duty. That’s HER work-life balance. Not anyone else’s.

It troubled me that my junior colleague viewed work-life balance through the lens of a “9-5” day. I’ve been in the working world for over 20 years and can’t remember many “typical” days like that (certainly not since the advent of email – and yes, my working life predates email, dang it). Realizing that each individual will have different ideas about how to best juggle the work-life stuff is an important lesson to learn as more and more organizations realize that “culture eats strategy” and opt for more progressive policies: one size won’t fit all. More importantly, the employees themselves need to understand that “one size won’t fit all” concept, before they start subconsciously judging the company’s efforts at acknowledging the need for work-life balance, and/or squinting confusedly at their own colleagues’ increasingly non-traditional routines.

Up until this epiphany struck, here at SHIFT we had fairly rigid rules about Flextime and Telecommuting. For example, employees were only eligible to telecommute once they’d achieved a certain title or status. We had rational reasons for this…but we scrapped those preconditions. This week we opened up our Flex and Telecommuting policies such that any and all employees are now welcome to discuss these options with their managers. I can’t say “Work-Life balance for me, but not for thee!” I am sure we will hit some bumps in the road as we adjust to our staff’s embrace of their newly-won freedoms, but something tells me we’ll never doubt it was the right thing to do.

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” – Bob Dylan

So … what does YOUR work-life balance look like?

Todd Defren

Photo courtesy of Michael Grab/Gravity Glue.

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