In Pursuit of Work and Life Balance

Wooden Jenga blocks stacked unevenly, representing the precarious balance between work and life.
••• hyejin kang / Getty Images

A number of years ago, Bryan Dyson, then the President and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, delivered a commencement speech at Georgia Tech. In it, he discussed the difference between glass and rubber balls. His insight is as valuable today as it was then.

"Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them - work, family, health, friends and spirit - and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls - family, health, friends and spirit - are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life."

I love that Dyson singles out what is most important in life. There are indeed priorities, and few would disagree over the importance of family, health, friends, and spirit. It is the work topic and this issue of "balance" that gives me and many other executives and professionals cause to pause. 

  • Balance is relative to the individual. My allocation of time at my vocation might seem excessive to you, but it works for me and in my mind, I am in balance. 
  • The implication that work is bad or less than good is troubling. Our work is very personal. If you are involved in work that you love, as the old adage goes, it never feels like work. 
  • Achieving a universally agreeable definition in a firm over the theme of "work-life" balance is singularly one of the most difficult tasks I have encountered in my professional life. 

What Exactly is Work-Life Balance?

A short time ago, I was involved in helping an organization formally articulate core values. There were unspoken values just as there are in every organization. However, prompted by growth and concern about codifying the culture and aspirational behaviors for all current and future employees, the values initiative was established.

After employee meetings and ample opportunities for input, a set of values statements were crafted and given to the employees for review and revision. The proposed final set came back with one of the value statements reading: "We support work-life balance." And then the initiative ground to a halt. 

There was no agreement on what that statement truly meant and what it looked like in practice. As stated above, every person interpreted the topic of balance through their own filters. For some, balance meant unencumbered flexibility to come and go. For others, it meant never checking email on the weekend. And for those who truly enjoyed their long days and weeks, it felt like a slap in the face. The firm had a conundrum on its hands, and it was not until a creative employee suggested a one-word change that the issue was resolved.  

The Real Issue Is Work-Life Flexibility

The proposal was to change the word "balance" to "flexibility." The new statement would read: "We support work-life flexibility." While a case can be made for the ambiguous nature of the term, "flexibility," some added context helped immeasurably.

Flexibility was described as the ability to adjust work hours to life's needs, including family and recreation, as long as the work was covered and no one was disadvantaged.

If you were committed to coaching your daughter's soccer team on Tuesday afternoons after 3:00 p.m., you simply had to arrange your work and meeting schedule to accommodate your coaching demands. A series of similar type examples were identified and the management team and employees accepted the change and moved forward. 

While we do not all have the luxury of working in an enlightened atmosphere where the employees define the values and the issues of work-life and personal life are part of those values, you must define your own priorities and strive for the balance that is appropriate for you. 

Yes, the Rubber Ball Is Important

Back to Dyson's rubber ball metaphor for work. We spend a great deal of our time involved in working in our lives. It is not something we should drop easily, and given the change and uncertainty in the world today, it does not always bounce back. We are well-served to look at work as well as the other aspects of our life as something important and worthy of protecting. 

Beware Extremes and Respect All of Life's Priorities 

It is not uncommon for individuals to take their jobs so seriously that their own personal identities become wrapped up in their titles and power. If and when something eliminates that title and power: a merger or a downsizing, the impact is crushing for anyone who defined themselves as their work persona. This extreme is unhealthy and jeopardizes your ability to secure and protect any of Dyson's life priorities or glass balls. 

The Bottom Line

What I love about Dyson's message is that it does single out those important attributes in our life: family, spirit, health, friends, and work. Treat all of them with the care and respect they deserve. Treat them like delicate glass balls and focus on achieving a state of mind and activity where they all feel right and proper. You can call it a balance if you will, but strive to get there. 

--Updated by Art Petty