Why Work-Life Integration Is A Bad Idea

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I love reading about leadership and business strategy and I am constantly amazed by how the same ideas can be re-branded hundreds of times over. Work-life balance is now passé. Integration is the latest aspiration. Work and personal lives are expected to be fluid and intertwined. And nothing will ever get 100% attention.

As a working mother, I understand the desire for flexibility in the workplace. I agree that the goal should be to find a way to be productive at work and present with your friends and family. But integration is just as much of a fallacy as balance. Work deadlines and family emergencies don’t occur in balance. And being singularly focused on a work project or a friend’s event doesn’t allow for checking email or social media at the same time.

Not every business owner wants the same size business. Not every parent wants the same career with the same demands that I may be willing or unwilling to take on. Building a life that accounts for what is important to an individual is dependent on the individual. Terms like work-life balance and integration imply that there is a particular goal we all should be achieving when in fact life does not always accommodate these aspirations.

The thing that particularly bugs me about the term “integration” is the idea that we should have our attention focused in multiple directions at the same time. A few months ago I attended an event to hear a CEO from a Fortune 500 company speak on the issues of leadership and implicit bias. At the end of her presentation, a man from the audience inquired whether she had ever worked for anyone who demonstrated the leadership skills she described. She responded that she had worked for someone who embodied the leadership qualities she strives for and who valued work-life “balance.” The CEO she described came into work each day at 8:30 am and left each day at 5:00 pm. There were no smart phones and there was no internet at that time. Off duty business was rarely required and, when it was, it was over the phone or in person. That same CEO led a long established organization through its highest period of growth and profitability in its history. Since that CEO resigned, none of his successors have achieved the same growth or profitability levels.

Being intrigued by this example of leadership, I asked the CEO standing before us how she demonstrates that level of work-life “balance” for her employees in this day and age of 24 hour connectivity. She responded that she doesn’t strive for work-life balance, but instead focuses on “integration.” The example she gave was disheartening. She said “If you and your husband are out to dinner and you need to respond to work emails, it would be rude to just take out your phone. But, if you ask him if he has some work he needs to do and you both take out your phones; that is integration.”

To me, that just sounds depressing. Call me crazy, but I want to enjoy spending time with whomever I am with. And, if there is a true emergency at work or at home, I hope I get a phone call.