What does it mean when employees say they want “work-life balance”? How do leaders support this balance? With smart phones, WiFi, and remote access, it is easier than ever to accomplish work outside of the workplace. With the option to be “on” 24/7, workers and leaders find themselves navigating new expectations and norms.

Work-life Balance Is a State of Mind

The word balance connotes an equal distribution among parts; however, work-life balance doesn’t necessarily mean distributing equal time and energy between your work and the rest of your life.

Instead, researchers define work-life balance as a mental state, involving perceptions of personal success in the amount of time and energy invested into different life domains and progress toward personally meaningful goals.

As such, work-life balance looks different for every employee, and is a process that shifts as we adjust our priorities.

Work-Life Balance Involves Navigating Work-Life Boundaries

Technology adds a layer of complexity to achieving work-life balance. Boundaries are blurred between work and home – we can now send emails from the commuter train and take meetings from our home office. Globalization of the workplace further blends boundaries, requiring employees to communicate with overseas teammates at any hour of the day.

Are blurred boundaries a bad thing?

Not necessarily. Blurred boundaries can have both positive and negative consequences. For instance, blurred boundaries allow employees to enjoy the flexibility of being able to work anywhere, anytime. Yet, they can also bring about stress and a sense of increased pressure to constantly be connected to work, even when spending time with friends or family.

Does our next generation of leaders prefer blurred boundaries?

It is a common stereotype that an integrated work and home life is the way of the future and that Millennials not only expect it, but prefer it. The truth is, some do prefer it and others don’t. In fact, all employees differ – regardless of their age – in the extent to which they prefer to integrate or separate work and home.

That being said, giving employees the autonomy to both set their own boundaries and change them will be increasingly important.

Ultimately, part of maintaining work-life balance and employee health involves managing boundaries according to individual preferences, whether those preferences are for blurring boundaries, setting boundaries, or some combination of both. Providing formal flexible-work policies is not enough; what’s important is giving employees control over flexibility and demonstrating support for their preferences.

Tips for Managers on Work-Life Boundaries

Use the selection interview to increase fit between employee and environment

Sometimes the nature of the work requires employees to blur boundaries between work and home. If this is the case, get to know an individual’s preferences during the initial selection interview. Clearly state the expectations of the job with regard to work-home boundaries and communication. This will allow both the applicant and the hiring manager to assess whether this job is the right fit.

Discuss your employees’ preferences, needs, and values

Have open and honest communication regarding what types of boundaries work best for each of your direct reports and do your best to respect this. Also, keep in mind that preferences or needs might change based on a variety of factors, such as changes in child-care arrangements or the opportunity to work on a time-sensitive but time-intensive project. Plan for this to be an ongoing conversation.

Give employees boundary control whenever possible

Boundary control refers to how much control employees feel they have over how they manage boundaries between work and home. Having boundary control does not mean having no expectations or accountability; rather, to the extent possible, provide your employees with the autonomy to either integrate or separate work and home depending on their preferences or needs.

Work-life blending is sometimes talked about as the way of the future, but are we really in the “Age of Blending”? Blending is certainly more possible than ever, but it’s not necessarily more preferred than ever.

What are your work-life boundary preferences – do you prefer separating or blending work and home? How have you communicated this to your co-workers? How have you accommodated the diverse preferences of your staff? Let us know!


This article was co-authored by Amanda Conlin and Carolyn Kalafut