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With work-life fit, does one size fit all?

There is a new way to explain your life unicorn: work-life fit—that forever quest to find the peaceful coexistence of your personal life and a professional career. Where we used to seek “balance” we now fight to “fit.” The difference is subtle but important. Work-life fit ups the ante. It’s no longer good enough to squeak by with a career and a personal life. Instead, we’re striving to thrive (at least a little bit) in the holistic process.

How do companies decide which activities (Parasailing? Preschool parade?) warrant flexibility? And what happens when a workplace offers “fit” to some but not to all?

A few truths and a lot of flexibility

Raising the topic with friends and colleagues brought up pretty strong opinions and lots of personal anecdotes. A few truths emerged:

  • work-life fit can be hard to come by

  • some people are better at asking for it than others

  • some employers are better at creating an environment for it than others, and

  • complete parity across an organization is almost impossible to achieve.

For many people, regardless of generation, Can you commute at off-peak hours, work from home a couple of days a week, makeup work you’ve missed on your own time, and not use PTO for every out-of-office occurrence?

Thanks in part to technology, today’s workers feel the immense strain of being available and on call 24/7. But the lack of universally accepted non-working hours means many workers begrudgingly owe supervisors an explanation for every hour they attend to something personal such as a doctor's appointment or a trip to the DMV. Most studies conclude that employers who recognize this reality and allow employees a degree of flexibility to attend to their personal life during the work-day are rewarded with teams that are less stressed, less resentful, and more loyal.

What fits into “fit”?

This semantic evolution reflects real shifts in today’s work culture. Whereas work-life balance largely felt like the domain of working Moms, work-life fit (as endless news and magazine articles can attest) is about all of us. This is due in part to today’s Millennial workforce, which approaches the very idea of work in a radically different way than their Boomer or Gen X colleagues.

Whereas work-life balance largely felt like the domain of working Moms, work-life fit (as endless news and magazine articles can attest) is about all of us.

For a Gen Y worker, a career must fit within the broader context of their personal values, their lifestyle, and their priorities. This means demanding more from employers in terms of work environment and flex time. Once only allowed for parenting obligations, work-life “fit” demands now mean pursuing a hobby, caring for an aging parent, or moonlighting as a wine blogger.

While work-life-fit may be an attempt for all of us—married, parents, singles—to pursue careers that don’t come at the expense of other factors in our life, children remain the number one reason workers seek flexibility. With fewer Millennials having children, that’s going to change, too.

One PR manager in her mid-twenties noted, “As a younger employee who isn't married [and doesn’t] have children, the assumption is that the work-life fit benefits aren't as essential. However, they are just as beneficial, but may look different.” To a non-parent, missing a parent-teacher conference may not seem like a big deal. Likewise, for a parent who has to make hard decisions about priorities on a daily basis, allowing a direct report to work from home in order to have a couch delivered may feel like an indulgence.

Building the boundaries

Some people set clear boundaries around home and work—some work long hours and thrive on it. Unless corporate culture really and truly walks the walk, One worker captured the dynamic at her company, “I think there are [un]spoken pressures. Even if I came in early or worked on something over the weekend, I'd feel guilty leaving the office early the following day, even though ‘policy’ would allow that. The eyes of my coworkers as they wonder why I'm walking out the door might keep me in the office longer.”

A company that’s not extremely clear about its flex time policy runs the risk of creating tension among colleagues and team members. Even well-articulated rules become blurry when real world circumstances put them to the test.

Even well-articulated (work-life fit) rules become blurry when real world circumstances put them to the test.

Like it or not, especially in small companies, personal history and relationships with the CEO or human resources manager matter. And, at companies that allow flexibility, parents and non-parents may be granted different amounts of latitude. As one younger worker noted: “Fairness? I'm not sure. I think it's great that companies are willing to make allowances to keep quality employees. Although, it begs the question, am I valued to the same extent? Would similar allowance be made for me, even without children?”

My informal research showed a wide range of experience for parents and non-parents alike. And much of it boiled down to company culture. Many working women I know will counsel less-tenured women to look at their supervisor’s approach to the work-life fit equation and judge from there whether the corporate culture can accommodate the flexibility they desire. Do executives sit on boards, volunteer with charities, If they do, it’s not a guarantee they’ll grant leeway for others to do the same, but there’s a better chance.

To flex, or not to flex?

Successful companies realize that when you bring personal interests into the workplace, you not only create a more vibrant corporate culture, you give the workers you’ve invested in less of a reason to go somewhere else. That’s the experience cited by a thirtysomething communications director whose colleagues are mainly like her: Millennial generation, single, city-dwellers. “All employees are equally encouraged to pursue things outside the office that fulfill and make them happy that require a flexible schedule. We're encouraged to work out, leave the office throughout the week and leave on time to make a class, [attend] networking events, etc. Outside work activities are also celebrated here….Our CEO has paid for employees to attend concerts of coworkers, plays of coworkers…[and] hosted an in-office yoga party for a recently certified yoga instructor.”

If a company isn’t heavily invested in cultivating this kind of work-life fit culture, it may be left to the individual workers to ask for what they need. Not surprisingly, people tend to go to bat for themselves in situations they can't control or in which they have zero options (a sick child or a dying relative), but less so when it's about wanting to take a dance class or avoid a long commute.

People tend to go to bat for themselves in situations they can't control or in which they have zero options (a sick child or a dying relative), but less so when it's about wanting to take a dance class or avoid a long commute.

Of course, not all companies are on board with the new work-life fit formula. If an organization isn’t competing for talent, for example, they may not feel the pressure to accommodate requests for telecommuting, or employee gym memberships. It may feel like a throwback to another time, to be required to be physically present in your own cube between the hours of 9-5, with exceptions taken out of PTO hours, but it’s still the case for many industries.

Many strike a balance that allows for some flexibility and requires employees to do their part. As a marketing professional and mother of two young children observed,” My employer is known for having good work-life balance and my bosses have been great about it. So that means sometimes I work on my day off. Most times I check email and keep things moving.”

The final truth

A final truth about work-life fit: colleagues matter. Whether it’s a member of your team who covers for you when you have to leave early or an understanding manager who accommodates your request to work one day from home, you can’t do it alone. Regardless of how much or how little accommodation we personally need to make things fit, it’s incumbent upon us to see this as a community goal.

And, as is true with so many things in life, what goes around, comes around. One mother I spoke with summed it up like this: “I truly believe it’s a sisterhood—when I was young and without kids I picked up the slack for women who needed to leave early for parent-teacher conferences. Now I see other younger women stepping up so that I can do it.”

Now more than ever, piecing together both a career and a life hinges on the grace of those around us.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.