A Model For Future Technology
Cecile Alper-Leroux, a 20+-year HR tech veteran, is UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group) VP of Product and Innovation.
For most of our modern lives, we have understood work and life as distinctly different — work is between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and life is … the rest of the time. Covid-19 quickly proved how flawed this idea was. In the last six months, we’ve seen that life and work are inseparable.
Our unusual life-work mash-up may feel right, if not terribly comfortable because it’s in our genes. Our nomadic ancestors created resilient tribal communities in which life and work, meshed together, helped us find more food and survive stronger predators. In 19th-century America, combining work and life was essential in the agrarian societies that flourished out West. Neighboring farmers loaned each other equipment and gathered for harvest celebrations with equal urgency, and children’s farm chores were completed alongside adults’ work. We can see parallels between then and now, as children stay busy distance-learning while adults work remotely nearby.
Parallels aside, we must still make a distinction between the life-work overlap in earlier times and the modern concept of “work-life balance.” Pre-Covid, achieving “work-life balance” was like succeeding on an impossible quest, with employees as adventurers boldly seeking equilibrium between their personal and professional lives. The pandemic laid bare the basic fallacy of this concept. Life and work intrude upon each other so often that we can’t see them as isolated and distinct activities.
Embracing that reality holds the promise of more fruitful lives and careers. Imagine if we gave ourselves permission to interrupt a difficult task at work with a joyful moment of life. Imagine if hearing supportive comments from work colleagues during a tough situation at home was the norm. What if we stopped flinching when a dog’s barking interrupted our team meeting? What if our family and friends accepted that intrusive work obligations don’t reflect our love for them?
For the past six months, this has been our reality. We’ve shared work with our lives in ways that feel very human. Our life-work connections forged a closer community in spite of how far apart we have become. As we move toward a future of distributed workspaces, we have to reflect on how deeply our lives and work intertwine, and how we can take what we have learned from this experience to craft more intentional and meaningful life-work connections.
Our Unvarnished Selves
Though Covid-19 has disrupted the physical and mental health of people around the world, the human spirit has persisted. We were forced to change how we worked overnight. Now we work from home “offices” in kitchens, dining rooms and bedrooms, and rely on laptops, video conferencing platforms and other tech tools and apps to continue the business of business.
The silver lining of this unusual arrangement? We saw each other as we really are. We’ve shared living portraits of ourselves in casual clothing, amidst our families and roommates, our idiosyncratic furnishings. This unprecedented personal sharing is not a “one and done” phenomenon. Rather, it marks a fork in the road for the future of work, creating an “expectation of humanity, active listening, support, and connection.”
Connecting As A Community
I’ve written before about the surprising origin of the word “company,” which derives from the Late Latin word companio — a traveling companion with whom one shares bread. This definition suggests that, for work colleagues in the earliest companies, life and work were inextricable. By the mid-20th century, however, this intimacy — there is no better word for it — gave way to a command-and-control hierarchy geared to developing more efficient means of labor productivity. In this new paradigm, the ordered productivity of work couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the messy, emotional nuances of life.
Today’s non-traditional work paradigms have restored the vital bond between life and work, with profound implications for employee work and career goals. Businesses no longer have to evaluate employees based on a linear series of hire-to-retire jobs. Rather, they can be evaluated for what work truly is: a multi-dimensional journey interrupted by unpredictable work and life events.
At UKG, our recent work focuses on developing a six-phase Lifework Journey framework for employees and managers. During our research, we discovered the value of managers connecting with employees for reasons beyond their work tasks and performance. For example, during the “At Risk” phase, which starts with an employee’s onboarding experience, anxiety about work performance is at a fever pitch. In this first phase of the journey, pay and benefits are primary concerns, and they drive most of a person’s behavior. A newly hired employee is, therefore, unlikely to suggest an innovative idea or conflicting opinion.
Obviously, no organization wants to inadvertently suppress the novel idea that could become a competitive differentiator. During this stage, managers should seek to understand the employee’s life priorities beyond work; getting to know them as people with dreams and desires that extend beyond the workplace, not just “human resources” or a set of hands to get the work done. By doing so, we can better connect their life and work goals in ways that pay off for both.
Without the assurance of a life-work connection, the employee in this example will probably receive little in the way of positive encouragement to express ideas and opinions. Similar life-work connections are made during the other work phases, which are not entirely linear — just like life. Now, due to a catastrophic accident of nature, work and life are again intertwined.
The Road Ahead
HR leaders should consider adopting a Lifework Journey framework for employees and enable continuous life-work connections. Technology has a key role to play here too in connecting employees’ lives and work so everyone is part of something greater than oneself — a community.
In the second article of this two-part series, I’ll elaborate on why today’s human capital management and workforce management technology tools must evolve to link work with life — as opposed to only optimizing work— connecting people to people, people to systems, systems to systems and systems to people, in service of company leaders, managers, employees, colleagues and families.
Forbes Human Resources Council is an invitation-only organization for HR executives across all industries. Do I qualify?