Even the most useful ideas sometimes cause problems. Work life balance, which has been crucial in re-evaluating our attitudes towards work, is one of those ideas. By drawing a line between the parts of our lives that are work and those that exist outside it, “balance” treats people as collections of separate components, rather than the fuzzy messes of intersecting issues that are real human lives. Work is affected by what happens outside, and vice versa. Not just accepting this but embracing it can allow us to lead our organizations towards something better.
It’s time to stop balancing the separate parts and consider the whole employee. To let the parts of their lives be intertwined, and to make the most of the benefit this brings.
Letting in the Outside Life
The first step towards dealing with employees as whole people is to consider communication. We often treat large parts of people’s lives as neither relevant nor appropriate to the workplace. A gay employee may remain uncomfortably closeted because they are not sure how colleagues will respond. Employees with unusual hobbies may keep quiet about their passions for fear of mockery, and so never tap into their enthusiasm in the workplace, treating it as a space in which they don’t get fun or satisfaction. Employees going through turmoil at home may alienate those around them with an unexplained short temper or erratic behavior, when feeling they could speak up, even just a sentence to explain their circumstances, would make everything clear to their colleagues, who would then be able to make allowances.
If you want to encourage a more open atmosphere then, as with work related communication, the key is to be more positive than negative. Don’t judge people for what they say. Encourage them to be themselves. Set appropriate boundaries to ensure that the work still gets done, but try to make boundary setting a minority of communications.
The aim is to let employees be themselves, to make them more comfortable at work and so more engaged and energized.
As with any shift in practice, there are risks in letting employees be their whole selves. Personality clashes may come up. A less formal atmosphere means that the boundaries have to be reinforced differently, and this may at first be uncomfortable for more conservative leaders.
To some, the relaxed atmosphere, openness about feelings and identity, and talk of home life looks like a lack of professionalism. This is an old-fashioned view, one that goes back to the Victorian era. That was the first time that most people developed working lives away from the home, and society was learning how to cope with that change. But centuries have passed. We’ve adjusted. Professionalism can look different now.
Behaving professionally doesn’t mean shutting down the part of you that exists outside of work. It means getting the work done to the best of your ability and taking account of how you affect your colleagues and customers. Everything beyond that, all the rules and the uniforms, it’s just a means to an end. So find new means.
Use the Opportunities
Once you start letting people be their whole selves in the workplace, you’ll see a change in how they behave. Talking about the things we love energizes us and puts us in a positive mood. Repressing our true selves has the opposite effect. So by letting employees be themselves, you’ll allow that positive energy out to fuel your organization.
More directly, you’ll get a better idea of what unusual knowledge and skills your employees have. These could provide different ways of tackling problems. Whether they spend their spare time programming computers, leading a scout troop or running marathons, everyone has skills and perspectives that can be relevant in work.
Knowing what excites your employees allows you to make better use of fun learning activities to improve training, as you’ll know what counts as fun for those involved, not just inflict your own tastes upon them.
Integrating home and work lives is particularly vital for large international companies. To compete in the modern world, these companies will increasingly want to manage talent on a global scale, moving skilled employees around the country or even the world to work in different locations. This is a huge personal upheaval, forcing home and work life to intersect. If you’re already treating employees as whole people, you’ll know how viable it is, and have opened up the gate to conversations about such changes.
The Whole You
As a leader, this isn’t just about how you treat other people. Treat yourself as a whole person too, letting your personal life show at work, integrating the two to make life comfortable. It’ll reduce the stress of managing the two separately, and increase engagement around you as employees get to see and appreciate the real boss.
You can even look outside of professional life for work role models. Someone in another sphere may provide a better inspiration or even mentor than a leader in a similar business, encouraging you to bring a fresh approach to your work.
By treating yourself and your employees as whole people you can reduce the strains of keeping two separate lives, increase engagement and bring new ideas and energy into your business. Why balance two halves when you can enjoy working with the whole?