Your Best Work-Life Balance Depends On Your Personality

Do you blend work and 'life' fully together or do you keep them firmly in their separate places? Jennifer shares a way of thinking about your personal preferences for integrating or separating that can help you make some subtle improvements

With hybrid working becoming a new normal, it's time to ask ourselves what work-life fit means in the new world. Do you prefer to blend work and 'life' fully together or do you yearn to keep them firmly in their separate times and spaces? Jennifer Liston-Smith shares a way of thinking about your personal preferences for integrating or separating that can help you make some subtle improvements as you work out your new work-life equation.

Balance or Blend: Which is right?

How do we decide which advice is right for us?

Should you put your energy into setting clear boundaries? Or being agile but 'always on'? Well, it depends! Partly it depends on your role and cultural norms (both corporate and regional) but also it depends on your own style: are you an Integrator, a Separator, or an Alternator?

What's your Boundary Style?

This is a very light-touch way of identifying your preferred style.

Which of the following best describes your current work-life pattern?

Work-Life Boundary Styles

Separators

Alternators

Integrators

Separators like to keep work and personal commitments divided.

For separators, there is a clear line between work life and personal life. You focus on work when you're at work and you focus on personal life when you're at home.

You generally prefer to compartmentalise by using physical space, your schedules, and your sense of identity in your different roles to keep different aspects of life in their place.

Alternators' lives work in cycles, switching between periods of Integrating and Separating work life and personal life depending on priorities and circumstances.

You integrate work and home life at crucial, busy times and then separate when possible. When this works well, you feel in control and satisfied.

Perhaps you prioritise work during busier times, such as financial year-end, or other key seasons, when you are willing to make sacrifices as you know things can balance back at other times.

Integrators blend work and personal commitments.

For integrators, there is no clear line between work life and the rest of life. You catch up on work emails during a quiet moment at social events and would like to get your haircut between business meetings because you think in terms of delivering outcomes rather than specified hours.

Natural integrators thrive on the blend. There are also people who are Integrators through necessity.

 

Down-sides and trade-offs

Some potential downsides or trade-offs for Separators, Integrators, and Alternators include the following. They may or may not apply to you but are worth reflecting on:

Separators

Alternators

Integrators

You may experience resentment from colleagues who feel a lack of 'give and take' if your boundaries are firm; even if this may be more in their perception than in the reality of what you deliver.

You may experience frustration when pressures force you to Integrate. This depends on how rigid your style is.

You may struggle with others' expectations that you'd be available to take a call or look at email on a 'day off' if you work fewer than 5 days a week. You may have opted to work a traditional full-time schedule to avoid this.

You might view your support networks at work and home as fully walled off from each other, which might work fine, but also might be limiting.

You might be missing out on opportunities to transfer skills and learning between your work identity and home identity if these are seen as highly separate.

Some Separators end up feeling they have made trade-offs to support their preferred style: perhaps having quite a thin network of support and social attachments outside work if you a work-first kind of Separator. Or sometimes carrying mixed feelings about downshifting career to guarantee some home priorities.

Changing styles can confuse those around Alternators because their behaviour is not as predictable and people are not sure where they stand: for example are you as contactable on holiday as you appear to be late on a mid-week evening?

It can be very hard in many roles to negotiate a working pattern to fit your personal preferences as there are few roles in current corporate cultures that support large swings between styles (such as, for example, term-time working).

Switching between styles increases the brainpower required to 'get back into the swing' with your other style and it can potentially be harder to manage aspects of your life.

Tasks and activities may be more difficult to prioritize and address when different styles are used in different circumstances.

Alternators can find your support systems may break down as these may not be consistent.

Perhaps you have not chosen this style but have a role that requires travel or have seasons with a particularly heavy workload. You may feel resentment at what feels like forced integration or separation at different times.

Blending work life and personal life can create the perception that you don't place enough value on either. Family members may resent the intrusion of work into what they see as "family time" and you may need to work quite hard to ensure colleagues understand your commitment to work when you leave 'early' to attend a family event

Other people may not understand your schedule and be confused as to whether you are "at work" or "at home" and both colleagues and family may not know when they can 'interrupt' you to discuss different matters.

Switching between roles and tasks can take more time and energy than focusing on one thing at a time because there is often a transition period required as we repeatedly refocus efforts or thoughts.

You may find yourself working long days without 'switching off' as everything is competing for your attention and sometimes it may take longer to get everything done in a parallel way.

If you are an Integrator through circumstance, not through choice, you may feel drained through constant multitasking

 

Make a Plan for your Work-Life Style

Step 1: Identify your Style

Look at the three styles and see which sounds most like you. Which style do you currently live day-to-day, and what do you prefer, deep down? If you could fully design your work-life fit your way, would you be a Separator, an Integrator, or an Alternator?

Take a moment to think about times when you've been at your best in terms of your sense of balance. You may want to ask friends, family members, and colleagues about how they manage their boundaries. Consider how you spend your time and how you feel about it across a day, a week, a month. Or bring to mind what happens in moments of tension or stress.

Are you fundamentally an Integrator, a Separator, or an Alternator?

Step 2: Be aware of potential downsides and trade-offs

Knowing your style includes acknowledging the potential downsides. Is your preferred style causing you (or others) any pressure, or is there pressure coming from conditions preventing you from expressing your preferred style? Are there certain times of day or days of the week that are problematic? Monitoring your habits may highlight aspects of your schedule, or your thinking, that are not working well for you.

For example, you might have adopted an Integrator style (even though you're a natural Separator) because you found that being 'always available' on the phone was the only way to negotiate flexible working or to manage your role, even though it is not quite your preference. What would it take to have more sense of control? Is it about getting clearer about the kind of calls that are suitable to take on a non-working day, or who else could help on those days?

If, on the other hand, you crave more opportunities to Integrate your personal life during the working day, what would it take to do that? Perhaps creating times during the day to check in on personal matters while at work, if possible, may help reduce any tension you're feeling?

Are you experiencing any downsides to your natural style, or making any trade-offs that you're not comfortable enough with?

Step 3: Make a plan

Once you've thought about your ideal work-life style and identified what is and isn't working well, you can set goals for change, if needed. There may be options for blending or separating your work life and personal life that you have not considered.

Think about what would make a difference for you. Whatever your work-life preference, there may be some lines to be drawn such as setting your phone aside at mealtimes, in order to recharge yourself, and - if you have a family - setting workable rules that the whole family can follow. Or not checking your email late at night, or the very first thing when you wake. Try first of all to identify goals you personally can achieve (it's always more achievable if we set goals for ourselves, not for others around us). At the same time, think about how your goal may impact others. Consider what's possible in your role, your corporate climate, your local culture? 

What support will you need? For example, if you are the only person in your team that can carry out a task, could you offer to train someone else, in support of a flexible working application?

If your reflections suggest that you need - or want - to make more time available for work, what more support can you put in place at home? Can you change the way you shop (online, for example), or clean (getting help, sharing with others at home, or changing your standards??). Who do you need to get onside? For instance, if you want to work late a couple of nights during the week in order to avoid bringing work home, you'll probably want to discuss that with your partner where relevant. If you want to negotiate to work from home sometimes, or more regularly, you'll need to be sure your boss understands why you want to try that and how your work will be delivered successfully: in every case, you'll be looking to identify the potential benefits for others as well as for yourself. And when you make progress, celebrate it across different areas of your life!

Whatever your goals, what you can do to increase the chances of success? If you can, try out some different approaches to integrating or separating work and personal life and pay attention to how it works out for you and those around you. Keep checking around for out what others do to make it work for them. When will you review your planned changes?

What will you do differently to manage your work-life fit to suit your preferred style?

Want to read more?

The concept of Integrators and Separators as different styles and preferences for balancing work and life comes from the 'flexstyle' research findings of Dr. Ellen Ernst Kossek and Dr. Brenda Lautsch, written up in their book: CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age. The third style is sometimes referred to as Cyclers or Volleyers. I have chosen here to call it Alternators and written up my own descriptions of the styles.

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Jennifer Liston-Smith

For over 20 years, Jennifer has been relentless in pursuit of innovation, identifying, defining, and sharing best practices and 'next practice' for leading global employers in flexible working, family-friendly, and wellbeing programmes, closing the gender pay gap, and promoting gender-inclusive parenting. Jennifer set up, and for a decade led, the Coaching & Consultancy side of what became Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions. She now focuses on identifying overarching trends through research and through advising employers and translating these insights into solutions and practical actions.