I remember an incident from the late 1990s that clearly illustrated the issue of balance between personal and work demands. Large law firms competing for talent were beginning to tout work-life balance as a recruiting tool, and had created sections on their websites to address this issue that was of concern to law students just starting their legal careers.
One of the students at the law school where I was working had just interviewed with a large, well-known firm in a big city. In debriefing his interview, he indicated that one of his primary questions when asked what he wanted to know about the firm was how they were addressing the “balance” issue that they had touted on their website. I told him he wouldn’t be getting an offer. Unfortunately, I was right. While neither of us could be sure that his question was the deal breaker, it was clearly the case that wanting to know about when you won’t be working probably doesn’t position you as the committed candidate an employer would be looking for. At the same time, as a job candidate you do want to get an idea of what the expectations will be for your time prior to taking on a new job.
An Inside Out Process
Before you start to consider expectations that you would like to have about balance between your time at work and time outside of work, it is important to know just what balance means to you. Different people have very different expectations of what it means for one part of their life to intrude upon another. In a 2005 article in the Journal of Vocational Behavior by Julie B. Olson-Buchanan and Wendy R. Boswell, they address the issues of role integration and segmentation, and their impact on conflict for employees between those two roles. Here is what the study addressed: Different people view their work lives in unique and individual ways. Some people are comfortable with a very integrated life—technology will allow them to work from almost anywhere; they willingly will accept work-related calls or email on an almost 24-hour basis; and as a result, may feel comfortable with physical time away from the work clock when other commitments call, such as attending their child’s afternoon soccer game.
Other people prefer a clear segmentation between their work and nonwork responsibilities. This means a clear stopping of one responsibility before starting the other; beginning and ending work at more defined times; being fully available to one part of life; and subsequently, 100-percent committed to the other. Still other people prefer a blend, with certain times in their lives off-limits to the intrusion of their other roles. Knowing your preferences—and the situations in which the intrusion of one upon the other causes stress—is a very good way to get a handle on what work-life balance means to you. This is not a one-size-fits-all equation. Nor is the way in which employers choose to handle these kinds of potential employee concerns. It is not necessarily integration or segmentation that impacts the way we feel about our work—it is the way those elements are congruent with our own personal values that has a big impact about how stressed we are in our daily lives.
Often, when people talk about work-life balance, they may be thinking about it based upon a 24-hour clock, rather than in chunks of weeks or months. Very few people have a balance that includes an unwavering day-to-day schedule, particularly if they are in the practice of law. But it is unlikely that it is the occasional crunch of a closing or litigation that upends people’s sense of balance. Rather, it is unrelenting uncertainty about time planning or the constant intrusion of one area into another that creates a life that feels completely out of sync.
The aforementioned law student had every right to ask about how his prospective employer was addressing these pressing issues. The problem was not that he asked so much as that he asked at the wrong time. If you want to know about the realities of the workload and expectations for physical presence at a job, the time to ask those questions is after you have received a job offer. That is the time to ask almost all of the questions that relate to an organization’s culture and employee expectations. Up until the time of an actual job offer, you are in a screening process. After the offer, you are (hopefully) being recruited for a job. If you want to know more about what the on-the-ground reality is for someone with values or a lifestyle similar to yours, ask to speak to someone in the firm whose background and life circumstances are similar. Don’t presume, however, that their view of integration and segmentation is identical to your own. Make sure that the questions you ask relate specifically to what you want to know about what works for you. Understand as well that future changes in your life circumstances—such as transitioning from being single to being married or partnered, or unforeseen circumstances, such as an illness of a family member—are likely to have a significant impact on your perceptions of what is and is not likely to cause you internal conflict.
Remember that the specific individuals for whom you work are likely to have a significant impact on how well your personal preferences for integration or segmentation will be honored. There is nothing wrong with wanting to know before you take a job how often other employees in roles similar to yours have been asked to work through a weekend, during holiday periods or late into the evening, or whether or not the firm asks people to be tethered to their jobs during vacations.
When you are clear about your values, it is easier to communicate with those around you about the ways you want to create a life that includes commitments to both work and activities outside of work. It is a good idea to make a list of important commitments. Remember, no list is useful until it is prioritized. In addition to work and family or personal relationships, make sure to include things like community involvement, hobbies or avocations, and professional development in the mix. If you have some absolute commitments when it comes to separating work and home, make sure that everyone is aware of them, and if you are thinking about accepting a new job or taking on a new and demanding client, make sure that you have communicated this to them as well. I know of one attorney who has been practicing for over 25 years who has a large family and a big practice. He also has a standing Friday night solo date with his wife. Everyone in his client circle and his employees know that this is an untouchable commitment. As a result, it works; they not only agree to his terms, they respect him for honoring his values.
It makes sense to take stock of how what you say is important to you is acted out in real life. If you say family or friends are important, but you spend the vast majority of your waking hours at work, you need to either acknowledge the disconnect and alter your patterns, or admit that you are in a time in your life where work takes priority. It’s not the lack of balance that is the problem. The problem arises when what you truly value isn’t being honored. There are many things that can make people unhappy about their work, but the greatest disconnect that can exist between you and your employer is when there is a lack of agreement between your values and the values of the organization. So before you take on new commitments, make sure you are clear about what matters most.