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Why achieving work-life harmony is more satisfying — and achievable — than balance

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Up until March 2020, Karen Peterson’s weekdays revolved around her commute. The Lendio CMO spent two hours on the road each day going to and from the company’s Salt Lake City offices — precious hours that forced her to sacrifice time with her family, time at work, and, more often than not, both. So when the coronavirus pandemic forced companies to close their offices, it was as if, suddenly, Peterson had gained ten new hours a week.

Working from home has made Peterson more productive at work and more present with her family, but not just because of those ten extra hours. She didn’t merely trade her old commute time for two additional work or family hours each day. Instead, she focused on building something she realized was missing from her life for years — harmony.

“Instead of balance — this idea that you’re either in one place or the other — I like to think of my time in terms of harmony,” Peterson says. “Sometimes, I’ll need to invest more time in something work-related, and others I might need to care for my children. When I reframe the way I think of my time, I feel like I have more of it.”

It’s even allowed her to take more time for herself. She’s able to do yoga every day. She can take more frequent walks around the neighborhood. For Peterson, marrying her work and personal lives has been a boon for her overall productivity, happiness, and health. And she’s not the only one who sees this particular benefit brought about by the massive work-from-home experiment that the pandemic thrust upon much of the working world.

Before video meetings from the kitchen table became part of our daily routine, working women worldwide spent their mornings like Peterson: They commuted to work, dropped their children off at school or daycare for those with little ones at home, and spent their days running to and from meetings. They took the time during their commutes to catch up on audiobooks, listen to the news, call friends, or plow through their emails.

Many women noticed a change when they began working from home: with their days no longer a juggling act, time in between meetings or before or after the workday can be spent with their children, taking walks with their families, eating with their partners, and blocking off time to work out at home or add new commitments like volunteering or socially-distanced book clubs.

To some, these might seem like small lifestyle adjustments, but it turns out that they profoundly impact the way women work. They’re examples of how women can achieve work-life harmony while working from home—a subtle shift that has helped women in the so-called “new normal” of their lives as employees, leaders, mothers, partners, and friends.

With work happening mere feet away from family members who might require childcare, education, medical attention, or simply a snack, women have developed new habits and adopted new approaches to time management. Instead of trying to balance their work and personal lives, they’ve begun to fit them together seamlessly. As a result, women worldwide feel empowered to take control of their time and energy and embrace all of their roles, at home, at work, and everywhere in between.

The fallacy of “balance”

While terms like “work-life balance” and “work-life harmony” are relatively new, the idea of separating our work and home lives actually goes back hundreds of years. Labor laws enacted in the U.S. in the late-1800s restricted working hours for women and children. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act mandated a 44-hour week for all workers. With the government regulating how much time people could legally spend at work, Americans could look at their personal and home lives much differently.

It wasn’t until the rise of technology and the so-called “knowledge society” in the late-20th Century that we started to see our work and personal lives begin to converge.

Many industries began to employ workers who were valuable for their specialized knowledge. Soon, information technology — then mobile technology, then cloud technology — allowed employees to “take their work home.” This changed work as we know it, forever blurring the lines between work and home.  Those disappearing boundaries gave rise to the concept of work-life balance. In time, top employers started touting work-life balance as a job perk as more progressive companies offered benefits like flexible time off, personal days, and WFH options. The idea of balance became known as the best way to be a happy, healthy, and high-performing knowledge worker.

Peterson says the idea of balancing work and personal life was progress, but not perfect. With balance, there is always a choice between one or the other (work vs. everything else in life). But to achieve harmony, workers can direct their energy with focus and presence where it is needed most and at the moment it’s needed most.

“The idea of balance conjures the idea of a teeter-totter—and who can maintain balance on a teeter-totter?” she says. “It’s having both of the sides working together in harmony. That’s where we should want to be.”

The entire idea of work-life balance is a fallacy and implies an ability to equally divide both time and energy, writes David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. And it’s not just researchers who are eschewing the concept of balance in favor of work-life harmony. Business leaders like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, apply it to their lives. Bezos believes that getting more work-life harmony is better for business as it doesn’t require a tradeoff.

“If I’m happy at work, I’m better at home,” Bezos wrote in a 2016 Medium post. “And if I’m happy at home, I come into work more energized—a better employee and a better colleague.”

Harmony here means harmony there

Peterson says a benefit of achieving harmony is it gives her more time and space to develop new self-care habits, which help in all areas of her life.

“Even if it’s 10 minutes of yoga or quietly reading classic literature, those activities are life-giving and energy-building for me,” she says. “Knowing that, I make time for those things, and I reap the benefits because I’m more charged when I am working.”

Sarah Fricke, a senior manager of global sales enablement at RingCentral, says she used to spend her mornings checking notifications on her phone or networking over coffee — and that’s when she wasn’t zipping through an airport terminal hoping not to miss her flight to a client meeting. Today, her mornings consist of long walks with her new dog, Walter. That freedom gives her long periods for proactive, strategic thinking—without a million notifications.

“I’ve rediscovered my mornings,” she says. “Rather than diving straight into work, I give myself that time back. By being more proactive with how I spend my mornings, I’m now less reactive.”

Leadership expert Dr. Steward Friedman says rather than focusing on any one aspect of our lives — or to seek balance — we should seek to enrich everything vital to our overall happiness: The quality of our relationships, our engagement in the community, and our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

“If instead, we pursue the prospect of harmony among the different parts of life—like the instruments in a jazz quartet trying to make good music—then the possibilities for wellbeing and high performance are much greater,” he says. “It’s not possible to have it all in balance, all at once.”

Part of finding that sense of peace is embracing the overlap between the different aspects of our lives. For Jenny Dingus, associate vice president of customer experience and retention at RingCentral, embracing the overlap between her home and work life has helped her feel more productive all around. Instead of trying to separate, she’s finding ways to merge her work and personal lives even more. Sometimes that simply means conducting walking meetings — listening in, or even leading, strategy sessions while taking in some fresh air.

“Before, I felt like I always had to be in front of my computer and never allowed myself much flexibility,” she says. “By embracing the overlap between my two worlds, I’ve created space for myself and actually work better because my environment isn’t so rigid — this way, nobody’s needs are being neglected.”

As a result, Dingus has seen noticeable improvements in both her mental health and work performance. By asking herself, “How do I take care of myself so I can take care of my work, my teams, and my family?” she learned that she needed to honor where the three meet. Now, she is more confident that she can give what’s required to her work while not detracting from her personal needs. “Instead of choosing one or the other, I’ve been able to find ways to increase my personal mental health and work outcomes.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic ushered in today’s new work-from-home realities, Dingus and Peterson were among the many working women frustrated with her life being timed to the minute every day of the week. Kirstin Burke, vice president of marketing at DataEndure, says she once spent her days shuttling her daughter to and from school, making sure she made it to her after-school activities, trying to connect with her husband — all while squeezing in a full day of work.

“I felt like if I wasn’t out of one place and arriving at another, the whole house of cards would fall down,”  she says. Now, because her home and work lives are inexorably linked, she feels more flexibility and less tension because she’s stopped trying to keep them separated.

“Sometimes, I’ll get up for a glass of water and end up doing a load of laundry and the dishes,” she says. “Now, instead of feeling guilty, I find acceptance that life is all in one place and strive to stay present to whatever I’m doing. It’s like the tune of the song has changed—the harmony is just different now, and it’s still beautiful. The best part is that I’m present to it now, which makes every part of the song sweeter.”


Read more on how women are thriving in their at-home work environments:

Chapter 2: How our new habits can and should work for us

Chapter 3: Your physique is no good here: How WFH is leveling the (physical) playing field for women in the workplace

Chapter 4: Working from home is exposing women’s strengths

Originally published Feb 16, 2021, updated Dec 30, 2022

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