The new work–life balance

The phrase seems increasingly outdated, given how much our work and our lives are now intertwined. It’s time for a new framework.

 

By guest author Adam Bryant from Strategy Business.

If you look up the history of work–life balance, you’ll find different takes on the concept’s origins. Many people give credit to Robert Owen, a Welsh manufacturer and the “father of British Socialism,” who decided that labour practices in the early 1800s were too demanding, and so started advocating for a balanced workday of “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

In the 20th century, work–life balance became more of an aspirational lifestyle goal. For anyone who has ever juggled a busy job and raising kids (not to mention taking care of a house), the notion of work–life balance always seemed like a distant dream: a stress-free mix of rewarding work and plenty of quality time for the family, exercise, and sleep. But that’s not how life works, and, in some ways, this idealized sense of balance created a mirage that only served to frustrate people who tried to attain it.

The pandemic seemed to render work–life balance a laughable concept. As white-collar workers set up workstations at home, there was no longer a separation of job and personal time or space. So we need something new, something more useful, to help us think about balance in our lives.

Here’s an alternative model. It starts with the idea that every moment falls into one of three categories: want, should, or need. It seems to me that every decision we make starts, implicitly or explicitly, with a sentence that begins “I want to…,” “I should…,” or “I need to….” (The last one includes its close cousin, “I have to….”) If you accept these buckets, you can then start creating a pie chart of your life based on this categorisation.

How much of your typical day, week, or month falls into each of those three categories? How much of your job is spent doing the things you want to do—ideally creating that state of flow in which your skills and talents are well-matched to the task at hand—versus the things you just muscle through because you should do them or need to do them.

There is no right mix, per se, and each individual’s outlook will change over time. When we are in our 20s, we can indulge in more of what we want to do. The same is true later in life, when personal interests can be prioritized. It’s those decades of our 30s, 40s, and 50s that can be particularly challenging—raising a family and building a career, which will include jobs that are stepping stones to more fulfilling roles. These chapters of life gave rise to the widely cited U-shaped happiness curve.

To me, that three-part pie chart is useful in determining whether we feel a sense of balance in our lives. And it also helps explain some of the meta-narratives of the moment, including the “great resignation” and the persistent desire of employees to work from home. All that time alone during pandemic lockdowns gave people time to consider the meaning of life and prompted many to quit unrewarding jobs. They decided to prioritize more of what they want, and commuting strikes many as more of a “should” than a “want.” And companies are making more of an effort to listen to their employees, too, conducting frequent pulse surveys. At the moment, employers are bending over backward to give employees what they want to help with recruitment and retention.

The pendulum may be swinging back. As talk of recession heats up and companies come under pressure, CEOs are starting to sound like they want to revisit the want–should–need equation and remind people that work is called work for a reason.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent company, wrote a memo to employees in July, stating that “moving forward, we need to be more entrepreneurial, working with greater urgency, sharper focus, and more hunger than we’ve shown on sunnier days.” This may not change the pie chart for some—often people want to show more initiative at work and feel thwarted. But it does signal a shifting mood at Google.

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, Facebook’s parent, told employees in late June that, in light of the challenges the company was facing, they would have to do more with fewer resources, and that low performers were not going to be tolerated. “I think some of you might decide that this place isn’t for you, and that self-selection is OK with me,” Mr. Zuckerberg said on the call. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here.”

The not-so-hidden message: work is about what you should do and what you need to do. The bosses are back in charge, and they’re less interested in what you want to do or whether you are feeling a sense of purpose in the work that the company is paying you to do.

We need a framework for assessing our relationship with work that is more practical and realistic in this post-pandemic world than a scale with work on one side and life on the other. In every job, there is always a mix of things that you like doing and things that you don’t like doing. Same with your personal life. What matters is how much of your time is spent doing things you want to do, should do, and need to do. That pie chart—however you fill it out—will provide a more accurate picture of the balance you need in order to feel a sense of happiness, contentment, satisfaction, and accomplishment.

 

If the ‘great resignation’ has taught employers anything, it’s to not take their workers for granted. Yet many companies risk doing exactly that—whether it’s by not paying close enough attention to skilled workers who are at elevated risk of quitting, by failing to support workers who seek personal fulfilment and meaning at work, or by missing opportunities to build the trust that so often leads to positive outcomes at the personal, professional and even societal levels.

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We explore these and other issues in this year’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey, the third in a series dating to 2019. Power is a central theme of the findings in this year’s survey, which draws from more than 52000 workers across 44 countries and territories and is one of the largest such surveys conducted.

For global leaders, some of our results will be a wake-up call. Workers who feel empowered by their current circumstances—i.e., those with specialised or scarce skills—are ready to test the market. More than one-third of respondents plan to ask for a raise in the coming year, and one in five said they are extremely or very likely to switch employers. Retaining these employees will require more than just pay; fulfilling work and the opportunity to be one’s authentic self at work also matter to employees who are considering a job change.

Our results also show that sensitive political and social discussions—topics that themselves hinge on issues of power and its distribution—are happening in the workplace, largely without company involvement, and are generating positive dividends for employees. Also, workers want more support in translating environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations to their work. And as leaders develop hybrid work models, they need to consider the 45% of the workforce that can’t work remotely—people who do essential work but report feeling less fulfilled and empowered than respondents who can work remotely.

The upshot for the C-suite? As companies take on ambitious business and societal goals, leaders must remember that employees can be a force multiplier or a detractor. In fact, PwC research has found that the workforce is the number one risk to growth—and also the principal means by which companies can execute growth-driven strategies. Understanding workplace power in all its aspects can help leaders energise their workforce, tap into the power of their people and accomplish bolder goals.

Companies operate in an increasingly polarised world, where political and social issues hold intense power over people. Some managers may fear that discussing these topics in the workplace could create a minefield. But 65 % of employees in our survey said they have these kinds of conversations frequently or sometimes. The numbers are higher still among self-reported ethnic minorities (73%) and younger employees (69% among those ages 26 to 41, 13 percentage points higher than for those ages 58 to 76).

The benefits outweigh the drawbacks

Conversations about sensitive political and social issues aren’t the divisive, polarising distraction that managers might fear. Among respondents who have political and social conversations at work, the positives—a better understanding of colleagues, a more open and inclusive work environment, and increased empathy—outweigh the negatives.

Employees who identified as ethnic minorities were more likely than other respondents to say that these experiences have had a positive impact. At the same time, minorities were also more likely to cite at least one negative impact, suggesting that the overall effect of these conversations, both good and bad, is more intense for these employees.

These discussions are happening despite little active effort on the part of organisations to facilitate them. Only 30% of employees said their company provides support to help them work effectively with people who share different views. This is a missed opportunity, given the importance of empathy and openness in building trust.

To be sure, supporting and encouraging sensitive conversations isn’t easy. However, leaders can make progress by establishing norms, offering resources and helping ensure that these conversations happen in safe, no-judgment environments. These environments should emphasise listening—not reaching solutions or generating consensus—and thus represent growth opportunities for senior executives as well, who are often much more comfortable in problem-solving mode. The leader’s role here is to help the company bring meaning, humanity and social impact to the workforce—not to deliver answers.

What makes a worker feel empowered? Specialised training is one element. Among respondents, almost half said their job requires some level of specialist training. This group was far more likely than other respondents to say they would ask for a raise or promotion in the next 12 months. The good news is that empowered workers are also more likely to recommend their company to others.

 

 

Skills shortages give employees more clout

A second aspect of worker empowerment is having scarce skills. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said their country lacks people with the skills needed to perform their job. Countries with the biggest perceived gap in skills include Thailand, India and Brazil. The industries with the highest share of respondents who feel their skills are scarce are healthcare (including pharmaceutical firms), technology, media and telecommunications.

Compared with employees who don’t believe their skills are scarce, this group is more likely to:

  • feel listened to by their managers (+25 percentage points)
  • ask for a pay raise in the coming year (+20 percentage points)
  • ask for a promotion in the coming year (+20 percentage points)
  • feel satisfied with their job (+17 percentage points)
  • switch to a new employer (+7 percentage points).

Companies are investing in their people—but not enough

To close the skills gap, companies are investing in the current workforce through upskilling and increasing wages—focusing on the elements they can control most easily, an important means of responding to periods of uncertainty. By contrast, automating, outsourcing and recruiting appear to be lower priorities. But in absolute terms, the share of companies taking these steps is still low. Only 40% of employees said their company is upskilling, and only 26% said their employer is automating or enhancing work through technology. Both numbers are low enough to imply considerable room for improvement.

The same holds true for supporting workers’ physical and mental well-being—a critical issue given the mental-health crisis now affecting so many workers around the world. It’s encouraging, then, that employees cited the support they receive on well-being as the third-most-likely way in which companies address skills and labour shortages. But again, in absolute terms, the proportion is low: only 29 % of respondents said they received this support. Given the scope of the mental-health challenges that workers face, this finding suggests that companies could be doing much more to support worker well-being.

 

Technology: Existential threat or upskilling opportunity?

Only 30% of respondents said they’re concerned about their role being replaced by technology in the next three years. Meanwhile, 39% said they’re concerned about not getting sufficient training in digital and technology skills from their employer. That proportion is even higher among younger respondents.

When it comes to retaining employees, money is the top factor. That’s understandable given the historic increases in inflation that were occurring while our global survey was in the field and that are projected by many economists in the year ahead. Men were more likely than women to say they’re fairly rewarded financially. Men also were 9 percentage points more likely than women to say they planned to ask for a raise. Both of these findings appear to reflect longstanding problems in wealth inequity, and they highlight the need to advance the gender-equity agenda, including pay transparency and higher female participation in the labour force.

Yet money isn’t enough by itself to retain workers, who were almost as likely to cite intangible factors related to meaning. Job fulfilment and the ability to be one’s true self at work were ranked second and third among employees considering a job change. These findings align with our 2021 survey results, in which 75% of employees said they wanted to work for an prganisation that makes a positive contribution to society, and fully half reported experiencing discrimination at work.

Understanding the four forces shaping your workforce strategyp

Company leaders must contend with a wide range of disruptions, including inflation, the pandemic, and fast-moving geopolitical and social crises—all of which have profound consequences on their workers and their workforce strategy. Senior managers need a systematic way to think about these disruptions in order to plan for them in the short and long term. To ground leaders’ thinking, PwC developed a framework for understanding the main disruptions that have shaped workforces throughout history, and that are—as the Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey results show—highly relevant today: specialisation, scarcity, rivalry and humanity. Read more about the four forces.

Employees are demanding that companies look beyond financial performance to broader ESG considerations—particularly regarding transparency.

The area in which employees say that transparency is most important is the company’s record on protecting worker health and safety. This, no doubt, is related to some extent to the pandemic and the need to recreate working environments with public health in mind. Nonetheless, economic impact, workplace diversity and environmental impact (including climate) weren’t far behind.

Environmental considerations don’t factor into employees’ day-to-day work—yet

Only 23 % of employees said their company helps them minimise the environmental impact of their job. The lack of clarity about environmental issues likely stems from a corresponding lack of communication from managers. Most companies are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, and many are making net-zero pledges, but such measures can feel theoretical and abstract to frontline employees.

The challenge for managers is to make environmental issues immediate and actionable by identifying specific behavioural changes that employees can make. PwC’s 25th Annual Global CEO Survey reached a similar conclusion, finding that climate goals were more likely to be a part of company strategy than to be a part of executives’ individual performance goals.

Part of the solution lies in stronger disclosures and communication about the environmental measures the companies already have in place—and then improving their performance and increasing their disclosures over time. In doing so, leaders can use transparency to build trust within their workforce.

 

It’s well worth reminding senior executives, as well as policy-makers, that a significant share of the global workforce can’t work remotely. This group—45 % of the respondents in our survey—report less satisfaction with their job than those working in hybrid or fully remote work settings (50 % versus 63 %).

Workers who can’t work remotely are also far less likely than others to say they find their job fulfilling, believe that their team cares about their well-being, feel that they’re fairly rewarded financially or feel they can be creative in their work. As companies revisit their workforce strategies, they must take into greater account these disaffected—and most likely disempowered—employees.

In addition, companies need to consider the role that these in-person employees play in overall community responses to the pandemic, as part of the organisation’s broader social responsibility mandate. After all, these employees often serve a critical role in society, providing services that cannot happen remotely.

Flexible approaches resonate with the workforce

Employees largely believe that their employer will provide work options they like in the coming year. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they prefer some mix of in-person and remote work, and 63 % said they expect their company to offer that kind of approach in the next 12 months, compared with 72 % in the 2021 survey. But there’s a disconnect at the extremes: 26 % of employees would prefer full-time remote work, but only 18 % said their employer is likely to adopt that model. Another 18 % said that their employer is likely to require full-time in-person work, which just 11 % of employees prefer.

Among full-time remote workers (about 17 % of all respondents), more than two-thirds are concerned about missing out on development opportunities. These employees, who are likely to be younger, need a more proactive approach to performance management and career development. For managers, the goal is to distribute opportunities equitably, regardless of whether employees come to the office or work at home.

In other words, hybrid work is here to stay. The precise ratio of office time and at-home time will vary, but companies need to experiment and adapt. That includes addressing the factors that drive retention risk—including authenticity, meaningful work and pay transparency—all of which become harder when employees aren’t in the same location every day. Companies also must invest in technology to support remote work and put the right governance in place over decisions regarding pay, promotions and other rewards, to fight ‘proximity bias.’

Finally, the data leads to a profile of younger workers and how they differ from the overall respondent base. Notably, many of these employees joined the workforce during the pandemic, so they’ve had fewer in-person interactions with colleagues and managers, and their perspective has been shaped by that experience. Specifically, employees ages 18 to 24 are:

  • somewhat more likely to work remotely (35 % versus 31 % for the overall respondent base) and to be more concerned about being overlooked for opportunities
  • more concerned about the impact of technology on their jobs over the next three years
  • less satisfied with their job
  • more likely to ask for a raise or promotion
  • more likely to change some aspect of their working life—changing working hours, switching employers or leaving the workforce.

What’s the main takeaway of the 2022 Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey for senior leaders?

Our findings are global averages, so each organisation and even business unit will likely have its own variations on the themes we identified. But companies won’t know that unless they start exploring. In other words, they must tailor their workforce strategy to the unique needs of their workers.

Specifically, companies need to gather data on employee sentiment for the topics we’ve identified, segment people with common attributes into personas and develop prioritised action plans for those groups. Most organisations will need to align their purpose and trust agenda, create the right environment for employees to address social and political issues, commit to pay transparency, double down on inclusion and invest in leadership development to make all this happen. They need to align their workforce strategy to their business strategy and to communicate—even over-communicate—their approach to human capital. And, critically, they need to track performance over time.

Companies face a range of challenges, including geopolitical and economic uncertainty, climate issues, social changes and cyber threats. In this kind of environment, they’ll succeed only if their people are fully engaged, motivated and eager to contribute.

Download the key findings PDF
PwC’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2022 (PDF, 3.41mb)

www.pwc.com