It’s been a big two weeks for the term work+life “fit,” a more flexible and expansive way to think and talk about work and life. For over ten years, in my consulting, speeches, blogging, and book, Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead, 2004), I’ve diligently explained the concept of “fit” to all who would listen. So, imagine the sense of validation and excitement when recently:
- Families and Work Institute released The State of Health in the American Workforce report and used “work-life fit” to describe one of the primary factors that impact employee health and wellness, and ultimately, employee engagement, turnover and job satisfaction, and
- The Sloan Work and Family Research Network interviewed Phyllis Moen, one of the field’s revered academic researchers, who stated that “fit” is the way we need to think about what she calls “life course fit.”
With these two research powerhouses joining the effort to shift the way we think and talk about work and life toward “fit,” we may be approaching a critical tipping point. To explain why this is so important, here are some key milestones, or “ah-has,” from my work with business leaders, managers and individuals that led me to understand the power behind this change in language and mindset:
Ah-Ha #1: Business leaders can get behind work+life “fit,” whereas they glaze over when they hear “balance.” I found that whenever I explained the broad impacts of strategic work+life flexibility to a business leader, his or her eyes would physically glaze over at employee work-life balance. Finally out of frustration, I began to ask what caused this reaction. A few brave souls confessed, “All I hear when you say balance, is work less. And we can’t afford to have everyone work less.”
While I knew I wasn’t saying, “Everyone will work less,” that’s what they were hearing. So I began to consider different ways to articulate the impact of flexibility on employee work+life reality. How could I explain that in some cases, yes, it’s about working less, but mostly it means working differently, more flexibly, smarter and better?
After numerous failed attempts, one day I heard myself say in a meeting, “It’s about helping everyone in this organization–including you—manage their unique work+life fit. And doing it in a way that meets the needs of the individual and the business.” Jackpot! Instead of visibly shutting down, the business leader got it. Not only did he get it, but he began to share what his work+life fit looked like. And he acknowledged that indeed his work and personal realities were unique and very different from many people in his organization. He began to see why greater flexibility in work and careers was a strategic imperative.
With the shift to “fit,” the innovation and problem-solving continue. The conversation doesn’t shutdown. Leaders can better understand that one of the goals of strategic work+life flexibility is for all of the different work+life “fit” realities to coexist in their organization as effectively and productively as possible in good times and bad…including their own.
Ah-Ha #2: To most people, balance” was a deficit model, or that-thing-no-one-has. This made it almost impossible to find solutions. Here’s a perfect illustration. At the beginning of a speech, I asked those who had work-life balance to raise their hands. Approximately 10% of the group held their hands up. Then I said, “Keep your hand up if you’ve maintained that balance for an extended period of time.” About 1% of the hands remained in the air. By the end of the speech after I’d introduced the work+life fit process, I asked “How many of you now think it’s feasible to find a better work+life fit?” Almost every hand in the room went up. Shifting to “fit” unearths the possibilities.
Ah-Ha #3: If there’s no right answer then there’s no judgment, only the “fit” that meets the needs of the individual and the business. The result is more flexible innovation that works for all parties. One of the roadblocks I consistently ran into was people thinking there was a “right way” to manage their work and life. That there was a specific answer or “balance.” Not only did this rigid, all-or-nothing thinking limit possibilities, but it resulted in unhelpful, often harsh, judgment of themselves and others (a la, the mommy wars.)
With “fit” there is less judgment and more creative problem solving because there is no right way to do it. Everyone’s individual work+life fit changes daily along with personal and business circumstances. It also resets at key milestones like finding a partner, having a child, caring for a sick parent, starting a business, getting laid off, accepting a promotion and/or retiring. I have never heard the same work+life fit reality twice. The focus becomes how do we flexibly adjust work, life and business to find a “fit” that is mutually-beneficial to the individual and the employer. Not who’s right, and who’s wrong. But what works.
Those are just a few of countless “ah-has” I’ve experienced over the years that reaffirm the need to shift our language and mindset. We need to account for the flexible, ever-changing “fit” between work and life, especially in the new work+life flex normal. Yes, a decade later, the work+life “fit” tipping point may have arrived. Thanks to FWI and Phyllis Moen for adding their influential voices and unique perspectives of “fit.” What about you?