3 Strategies to Strengthen Work-Life Balance Through Technology

As a member of the relatively small Generation X cohort that is sandwiched between two monolithic generations - the Baby Boomers and Millennials - often I have considered what "work-life" balance means both for myself and for others.

The Business Dictionary defines work-life balance as, "a comfortable state of equilibrium achieved between an employee's primary priorities of their employment position and their private lifestyle." At first glance, it seems like a fairly straight-forward definition. However, a challenge emerges with "comfortable" - it is a subjective word.

I called my mother - a Baby Boomer and a self-professed workaholic - for her perspective.

"Mom, do you think you had a healthy work-life balance over the course of your career?"

"Of course I did. Why would you think to ask me such a thing?" she replied. "You made it to 18 without being run over by a truck, didn't you? I did my job," she ribbed.

"How did you do it?"

She thought for a moment and said, "I worked hard. I put in way more than 40 hours each week to be taken seriously. Plus, I did not have all the distractions you kids have these days."

"Distractions?"

"The internet, email, texting and apps for everything," she rattled off. "I just went to work, put in long hours, came home and was done for the day."

From a Generation X or Millennial perspective, it is easy to view my mom's typical 50-60 hour work week as proof of having had an imbalanced work-life equation. However, Mom believed that she had balance. The lack of technology had given her "a comfortable state of equilibrium" between the two variables. When she left work, she was finished working for the day. She could "turn off."

Generation X also has an interesting relationship with work-life balance and technology. It was history's first generation to place a high value on having a traditionally understood work-life balance. However, Generation X does not believe it has managed to achieve it. The 2014 ACC Global Work-Life Balance Report revealed that less than one-quarter - 24% - are "very happy with their work-life balance based on their current working pattern." There is much room for improvement!

They are not the "slackers" they were assumed to be in their formative years. Xers are a technically literate cohort that uses technology as a tactic to increase productivity and foster stronger work-life balance. When they are successful in doing so, they feel comfortable. Xers are hard workers; They just don't want to be connected to the office 24 hours per day.

The reasoning behind this philosophy appears to be two-fold:

1) Unlike prior generations and on average, Xers are somewhat suspicious of employers and require proof before believing what is communicated to them in the workplace. Their parents and grandparents had taught them that hard work and loyalty delivered financial security and long-term employment. However, a lifetime of transformational global events - including the rapid transformation of business brought about by technology, being history's first "latchkey" generation and the Great Recession - demonstrated to them that one could only count on oneself.

2) Xers were the first generation to grow up with wide scale technology. While not quite as "native" as Millennials, they adapted, learned and embraced tech to be utilized as arrows in their professional quivers. These former "latchkey kids," are used to being independent and value autonomy. As such - and unlike prior generations - Xers do not equate "face time" at the office with "commitment" to their professions. Rather, they believe that technology helps to foster a healthier work-life balance and provides the means to accomplish assigned duties from any location. They do not want to be "tied down" to a desk.

Technology and Millennials go figuratively and literally hand-in-hand. Only the oldest members of this cohort can recall a time in their lives when the power of the internet was not on a mobile device in their pocket.

Millennials are known as "digital natives" for a simple reason: They are the first cohort to have had technology mass adoption in their home as children. In their formative years, Millennials were taught to embrace teamwork and transparency. Further, these values reflect and provide insight into their relationship with social media. It is not merely that they live online figuratively; They view social media as a melting pot of communication channels, rapid access to information, entertainment and social utility.

These values did not disappear when Millennials entered the workforce as adults. They added their professional lives to the technology mix and carried on as they were taught. Unlike prior generations that believed in a clear delineation between the work and life components of the equation, Millennials view each side as contributing to the aggregate narrative of their personhood.

Does this "always on" nature mean that Millennials do not value work-life balance? No! Nothing could be further from the truth. As with the generations before it, Millennials have a differentiated relationship with the work-life equation; In fact, it is extraordinarily important to them. According to the 2014 ACC Global Work-Life Balance Report, 40% of Millennials believe they have found work-life balance; This figure is 14% higher than Generation X.

Perhaps one reason for this, rests in the fact that Millennials do not value privacy as much as prior generations. As such, cohort members do not mandate that the work and personal sides of the equation exist in isolation from the other. Rather, for Millennials to feel that they have achieved a comfortable work-life balance, each side much support the other in a symmetrical manner. When such harmony exists and blends the two components into one, in effect it becomes the Millennial person's new "team." Moreover, Millennials know teams and how they work best - when all players contribute to the effort.

Strategy #1: Technology-Enhanced Scheduling

An extremely effective strategy for nurturing a stronger work-life balance is to keep your calendar up-to-date. Technology has made this a breeze. Unlike yesteryear, when an employee's professional calendar stayed at the office on a desktop computer, technology enables workers to carry it on their personal devices and have it update automatically across all devices via the cloud. Further, personal calendars can be added to the mix to provide colleagues visibility into out-of-the-office time constraints so they can schedule office-related items efficiently. Note: personal calendars can be set to "private" so that only the time that is blocked off is shown.

For Boomers and Xers keeping an up-to-date calendar that includes both professional and personal events will enable members from both of these cohorts to respect their need for "down time" away from the office. Further, incorporating personal scheduling might reveal that one has more or less balance than one had originally believed.

For Millennials, keeping an up-to-date calendar provides insight into when others - and they - are available for collaboration and teamwork. This strategy also cultivates Millennials desire to have access to information without gatekeepers and roadblocks; They can easily review others' calendars from their personal devices 24/7.

Strategy #2: Technology-Enhanced Communications

Telecommunications have evolved to the point where it is quite simple to stay connected to the office and colleagues regardless of physical location. For Boomers who believe that putting in face time demonstrates a commitment to his or her company, video conferencing tools such as Google Hangouts, WebEx and Apple FaceTime enable one to do so even when personal obligations outside of the office require attention.

Xers, who value independence, believe that technology-fueled communications tools (video conferencing, email, texting, etc.) provide a clear ability to work remotely, whether from home or even a coffee shop. Employers that offer the capacity to telecommute enhance Xers work-life balance as it removes travel time to and from the office.

Millennials, who value having access to information whenever they need or want it, also benefit from tech-fueled communication tools! For instance, Slack and Google Hangouts provide always-on communication channels for workers to communicate with one another at any time whether or not the worker is at the office and in doing so, enhance a Millennial's work-life balance. Further, such tools nourishes this cohort's desire for collaboration through teams.

Strategy #3: Technology-Enhanced Productivity

There's no doubt that the modern world is fast-paced. The sheer amount of information that we consume - consciously and unconsciously - on a daily basis is mind boggling. Each day, each person consumes 34 gigabytes of information or roughly 100,000 words - roughly the amount of content that 175 newspapers contain within its pages. Frankly, it astonishing that we get anything done at all! However, modern tech-fueled productivity apps can help to keep workers on pace, and in doing so, strengthen work-life balance.

Boomers will appreciate Evernote's ability to let busy professionals save business cards by just taking a photo of it with a smartphone. Evernote's algorithms automatically save all relevant information from the business card without needing to spend time typing everything out by hand. This ability recaptures time that Boomers can use at the office to focus on higher-level work and at home because there was time during the day to get professional duties accomplished.

For Xers who are technically fluent, but find themselves distracted throughout the work day when they check social media sites or sports scores online, Cold Turkey is a fantastic app to consider! This easy-to-use app lets a user self-determine which sites to block and for what time frame. Without distractions, a Xer employee will be more productive during working hours and recapture personal time in the process!

It goes without saying that the digital native Millennials have embraced apps as a means to enhance work-life balance. One app that a Millennial colleague mentioned was Audible - an audiobook reader. Despite his very busy work schedule, he listens to audio books throughout his work day on a broad-range of topics, including professional development. Further, he can listen to books at multiple speeds to recapture time both at the office and in his personal life.

Regardless of what generation to which you belong, opportunities abound to foster a healthy and powerful work-life balance through the use of technology. You can do it!

References:

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Preferences in Rewards, Recognition & Incentives.” Generations in the Workforce & Marketplace:
Preferences in Rewards, Recognition & Incentives | Research | The Incentive Research Foundation. Incentive Research Foundation, 21 July 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
  10. 10. Blasingame, Jim. “The Big Three: Boomers, Gen X, and the Millennials.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Michael Buenaventura

December 15, 2016