Everything you have been told is a lie. There is no such thing as work/life balance in our industry since it is based on the assumption that the work stops at some point. But the work doesn’t stop because the Internet does not sleep. In a globalized world, where your audience, your competition and your clients are constantly changing and demanding, there is no way to separate working hours and fallow times. Forget being able to switch off and unplug if you want to build a career in this industry. Rather, embrace the fact and integrate your work and life.
The idea of a work life balance came about as a reaction to the wave of work that overtook us and pulled us away from the 9 to 5 way of work. Increasing competition and an increasingly demanding focus on productivity put severe strain on peoples lives, with the expectation that people would work longer and longer hours just to keep up with demands. This is part of agency culture; namely that you will work all hours just to stay ahead of a ferociously competitive industry and meet client requirements. The personally unsustainable nature of this way of working led to a movement to bring more balance to the equation. This is where the idea of the importance of work/life balance came about. This, coupled with two forces, namely the ability to work from home due to the ubiquitous nature of email and video conferencing, as well as the scarcity of digital skills meant that practitioners could demand a form of work/life balance.
The fact that this remains a seller’s market means that it is possible to maintain a degree of work/life balance. I know of many digital practitioners who choose to go from one job to the next as something of a hired gun, working when they need to and then moving on when it either becomes too much or if they find that it’s time to do something else. I remember many years ago meeting someone while travelling in Thailand who worked as a consultant for IBM, essentially working when he needed to and backpacking the rest of the time. I remember thinking that this was the most awesome thing I had ever heard of. And make no mistake; it is amazing. But I believe this type of opportunity existed in a brief moment in time, when the demand for a very rare skill-set was such that people could do something like this. I think that in our space that time has passed because not only is our skill set less rare, our industry moves so quickly that it is impossible to stay current unless deeply immersed in it.
While it is still possible to a certain extent to work like this, it is not possible to sustain a long term upward career trajectory as a digital strategist if you choose to do this. You simply are too embedded in the operation of the business and the delivery of value to be able to punch in and punch out or to work bankers hours.
So does that mean that you should give up any hope to have a personal life if this is your chosen career? Not at all. I believe that rather that think about work/life balance, consider instead work/life integration. There is a big difference between the two. Work/life balance implies a separation of the two important parts of your daily routine; when you get home you unplug and don’t think about work until you get into the office the next day. Work/life integration means you never get to completely switch off, that you are always wired in and are often available. But it happens in manageable pieces. Because you are always on and capable of answering pressing issues as they arise, your existence is characterized by a stream of continuous, bite-sized and rapid exchanges rather than long and deep conversations.
The pay off is the integration of your life into your work. Family priorities can be scheduled into the work day and flexibility is granted to either deal with these responsibilities as the arise or there is an ability to work from home if necessary and on an ad hoc basis. The focus is on the work; as long as this is completed to a high level of quality and on time then it doesn’t matter what else is done in the course of the day. Family can become a part of the fabric of the office as necessary. Compensation is structured with this in mind, with people choosing to forgo a periodic raise in lieu of a family travel allowance.
This requires a progressive work environment. But it is the only way to make this work. If you demand that your critical team members are always on, always responsive and always available, then you need to create a sustainable environment that allows them to integrate their lives into your operation. This is how you retain and grow high performing team members. Work/life balance is a myth for these people. Allow them to integrate their lives into their work and everyone benefits.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.