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WORK-LIFE BALANCE / SEP. 25, 2015
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5 Work-Life Balance Hacks for the Digital Age

This summer, many major media outlets paid a lot of lip service to work-life balance. The debate was reopened by a highly controversial New York Times profile on what it’s like to work at ecommerce giant Amazon. If you haven’t read the piece, its goal was to portray Amazon as “the place where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves”. Many, including founder and CEO Jeff Bezos himself, claimed that this was not the kind of corporate culture they are promoting at Amazon. Others decried the situation arguing that it’s the same for employees at most tech giants, whether they are located in Silicon Valley or elsewhere. Others said that the Amazon model is the one that any tech company needs nowadays, in order to survive.

See Also: 4 Best Apps to Improve Work Life Balance

There is some truth to all the arguments above, especially if one looks at the 2015 Forbes list of the best companies in the U.S. in terms of work-life balance. The tech companies on the list are the same ones you’ve seen there before and the organizations at the very top genuinely value employer satisfaction, as is evident by their business culture and policies. But is that all there is to achieving a work-life balance, or is there some internal readjustment also in order? Read on, to find out how you can strike this elusive equilibrium in the digital era.

1. Redefine Your Measure of Success

Entrepreneur recently surveyed CEOs and freelancers alike, in a quest to understand what makes a good work-life balance for them. Perhaps the most poignant response came from a millennial: Brittney Castro, founder and CEO of Financially Wise Women, an L.A.-based company that deals with financial planning. Castro lists several month-long sabbaticals each year as her top current career goal and explains that balance is a strange abstract notion. She also eschews the notion that it should be a pie chart.

Instead, Castro explains, it’s far more plausible for a professional to focus on a couple of areas of their life at a time. This focus can vary from one year, season, or month to the next: it may be work and family this season, but it could very well be personal growth and traveling the next. She adds that, in her experience, whenever she takes the stress out of finding balance, she finds it tends to happen naturally.

The takeaway here is that, if viewed as a conflict between several divergent and competing areas of your life, balance isn’t going to look much like balance at all. Instead, it’s going to make you feel burned-out and spread thin, therefore you shouldn’t try to juggle too many things at once. By taking that conflict out of the equation, you’ve got an approach that might actually serve you right for years. For, if ancient philosopher Seneca is any authority to go by, going to great lengths to keep something you’ve acquired through going to great lengths, only makes for a short, sad life.

2. Work for the Very Best

Here are some facts on working in the U.S. in the age of the digital economy:

Fact #1: The US is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t provide new mothers paid maternal leave. In most countries, the expenses incurred are paid for by the government, and the median leave offered is 5 to 6 months. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro are currently pushing for a limited paid leave bill (12 weeks). Under its provisions, pooled contributions from businesses and personnel would go toward covering unforeseen personal expenses.

Fact #2: The tech companies that do offer work-life balance-focused benefits do so to stay competitive, not out of the kindness of their own heart. Among the latest such businesses to offer perks in this category: Netflix (offering unlimited leave to new mothers and fathers), Microsoft (recently upped its paid leave from 12 to 20 weeks for moms and from 4 to 12 weeks to dads), and Adobe (recently upped paid leave from 9 to 26 weeks after childbirth/adoption).

Fact #3: Most of the companies on the Forbes list are non-tech businesses. In fact, Colgate/Palmolive has topped that list for the third year in a row, and it’s followed by Wegman’s, Coldwell Banker and H&R Block. The first Silicon Valley fixture on the list is Google at #5.

That being said, the best tech companies to be working at, in terms of good pay, flexibility, commute perks, and anything that comes in the way of living a happy life are Google, Nokia, Philips, Motorola, and Facebook.

New Facebook parents get a $4,000 boon of “baby cash”, plus four months’ paid leave. The company also has breast-feeding rooms at its Menlo Park offices, plus financial aid programs for adoption and fertility services. Apple also offers egg-freezing cost coverage, plus 4 weeks paid leave before birth, 14 weeks after, and 6 weeks for non-birth parents.

Google offers “mothers’ rooms”, $500 in baby supplies, discounts for nanny services, and childcare consultations. But bear in mind that there’s plenty of pressure involved in taking paid leave. In fact, current YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki, was the first ever employee at Google to take maternity leave. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! famously ended the company’s telecommuting program which caused a rather negative stir. In her defence, though, she’s introduced paternity leave (8 weeks), extended maternity leave to 16 weeks, and also provides staff $500 for baby expenses and $5,000 in adoption aid. Other companies with family-friendly policies include Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Change.org.

So, you know, if you want a good work-life balance, go work for these guys. Easier said than done, right? True as that may be, bear in mind that if your employer has a poor track-record of being kind and understanding toward their staff, that’s unlikely to change overnight. More often than not, good employee policies require massive incremental changes and large-scale company culture overhauls. If your company doesn’t have any of these policies already, don’t hold your breath waiting for them to change policies.

3. Make the On-Demand Economy Work for you

Every year, Forbes and online job portal Indeed draw up a list of companies that employ more than 100 people, and which manage to keep their staff happy. And while Paul D’Arcy, senior VP of Indeed, agrees that striving to maintain a work-life balance for one’s employees is a choice, not a luxury, he also highlights the rise of the on-demand economy.

According to the Freelancing in America report, recently released by oDesk some 53 million people in the U.S. are part of the “1099 economy” – named thus after the form freelancers need to fill in in order to declare their misc. income.

So, what does this new American workforce look like? By all accounts, it’s a young white dude. A Request for Startups survey says 57 percent of on-demand workers are white, 72.7 percent male, and 67.5 percent are aged 18 to 34. Most of them are single, college educated (though not necessarily graduates) and their median hourly wage is $18. It may not be much, but the people who keep this kind of lifestyle up are drawn by other factors except for pay. It appears that although freelancers could get better wages if they opted for anything but being independent contractors, flexibility is far more important.  

And that’s where the issue of work-life balance comes in. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this year’s Forbes ranking of good employees is the order of ranked ‘ingredients’ to a good balance. Though most people surveyed rank pay first and location second, flexibility is important enough to rank third. With the rise of the on-demand economy, more and more skilled staff realizes that they may not need that 60-hour corporate work week to be happy after all.

4. Create Your Own Work Ethic

Is there a checklist or cheat sheet you can consult, when consciously trying to create a better work-life balance? Why, as a matter of fact there sure is! Check this out:

  • Don’t do, delegate. No, you don’t have to do everything yourself. View every task as a job in itself. View every task from the perspective of a recruiter. Would the recruiter tell you you’re over-qualified for the job? Then let someone who works under you handle it.
  • Work with a sense of awareness. When it starts to feel like you’re doing your job mechanically, stop. Wonder. Analyze. What’s the actual, tangible point to what you’re doing right now? Is it making you happy? Is it going to impact the organization in a positive way? Can someone else do it? Does it have to be delivered right now? If you can answer at least three out of those four questions in the affirmative, then keep at it. If not, take a break, reconsider, and try a more aware approach to your work.
  • Stick to your hours. Be at the office at 9 and out by 6. If you’re constantly pressured into staying on for longer (especially if you’re not being paid for overtime), start looking for a new job. If you freelance or telecommute, make it a point to track your hours and/or performance. It’s amazing how time flies when you’re earning a buck. Figure out what kind of schedule you need in order to be productive, and stick to it!
  • No tech in the bedroom. These days, it certainly seems like the technology we’ve created to help us work better and less, is actually just keeping us glued to our jobs. Economy philosopher Maynard Keynes predicted that by the 21st century we’d all be working 15-hour weeks. One potential reason his prediction has yet to come true? Well the Internet keeps us constantly connected to our jobs, so there’s really no need to work 15 hours a day at the office, we spend the entire afternoon and evening glued to our devices reviewing our work anyway. Kicking this habit can be as hard as giving up on a physical addiction, so start small: make it a rule to rule out all tech (yes, that iPhone, too) from the room where you sleep.

5. See Balance as a Three-Way Marriage

Ever thought you would take career advice from a poet? What do poets know about the hardships, constraints, and stressors of an actual job, right? Well, wrong. David Whyte is one poet hailing from the UK, who’s been hired to speak on how to be a good leader and successfully manage a business by big names such as Chanel, Visa, Microsoft, and more. All these gigs have come in the wake of him publishing a very successful book called The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship.

What Whyte explains in the book is that the three aspects of one’s life, pictured in the Venn diagram above, should always be seen as connected in a constant conversation. They’re never separate: they are, first and foremost, stages for one and the same being to express different, albeit coherent sides of the self. As such, pitting them against each other, or neglecting one in favor of the other will ultimately lead to the kind of life no one wants to live.

See Also: Top 10 Countries Boasting the Healthiest Work-Life Balance So, there you have it: work-life balance can be achieved in the digital economy, believe it or not. You just need to treat yourself as a whole, not a segmented creature, made of both your career and your personal well-being. At the end of the day, that guy/gal who needs a pat on the back and a drink to unwind is the same one who works hard at their career. Strive for this kind of holistic approach and balance will find its way to you!

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