Here’s an idea that has become more clear to us at Inter Alia over the last little while. It’s not earth-shattering, but the concept is that prioritizing real work-life balance is good for business. This goes well beyond just saying that as an organization we believe in work-life balance, and requires us to actually figure out what leads to that elusive feeling of having a life in which all the spheres (work, family, health, relationships, etc.) are in order.
We started by recognizing that there is a problem out there with the use of the term “work-life balance”, namely:
- It overemphasizes the idea that “work” is separate from life.
- Parental and professional leaves are still viewed as choices made by people who don’t value their careers.
- Creating balance relies too heavily on merging home and work using technology, rather than addressing the root causes of a workday that is too long.
- Existing systems reward employees who allow their time to be tyrannized in a way that may not be sustainable long term, leading to burnout.
Each of these can be addressed.
First, to make work a part of life that stays in its rightful place in an ordered existence, the goal has to be that that “work” is enjoyable enough to not feel like a chore. Identifying how to achieve this is a very personal decision involving an understanding of the factors that make each of us feel out of balance or ground down by our daily work. For some of us, that would be office politics, or the commute, or the subject matter. Our view is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to what makes a person feel happy in his or her work. At Inter Alia, we create this feeling of balance for our diverse team through a number of individual decisions about the way we work that all add up.
* We choose clients we enjoy working with and like what they do.
* We create business models that deliberately limit our mental investment in the day to day office politics and ups and downs of our clients’ businesses. We maintain our objectivity by doing this, and are more valuable to the client as a result.
* We work as a team to make sure we feel good about our business practices. (e.g. we don’t take retainer fees because we don’t believe in being paid before we have done the work, we set our rates at levels we feel offer good value to our clients given our level of expertise, and we choose clients we believe will honour the relationship and pay bills on time. We have, as a result, no stress over this issue (fundamental when you provide services for a living!)).
Second, we assume professional leaves will be a part of a career for a high-performing person. We don’t look at these leaves as a lack of commitment to clients or to the firm. They are part of life, and we create a climate right from the beginning in which we are open to making accommodations for our team if anyone needs a leave. Our goal is to ensure that if someone does have family goals, they don’t feel ashamed to bring them up, or fear that they will suffer negative career consequences. If they want to be a successful travel blogger in addition to being a great lawyer, we can accommodate that and believe a happy lawyer is the one that clients most want to work with (See, for example, @LynnB). So we support the things that make our team happy. Honestly, it’s backwards from the way society sees it today – but in our view it is often the very highest calibre people who take the most on in their work lives, but who also have the self-awareness to know when they need a break and the confidence to ask for one. I have taken a few short leaves out of the work force during my career. I used the time to travel and gain valuable perspective on the world, its people, and its various cultures, and I use this knowledge on my clients’ behalf all the time.
Third, any work-life balance that is accomplished by facilitating the accessibility of work from the home with technology is to be regarded as only one tool in a much larger toolbox rather than the entire solution. Not being tethered to a desk is a good thing. But neither is having no space in one’s life that is free from work emails. Our approach is to first look more deeply at the root causes of an overly long work day – long commutes to the office, meetings without an agenda, recurring weekly meetings, over-emphasis on responding quickly to non-urgent emails, and not having a good sense of which tasks are properly owned by which person – before expanding that work into evenings and weekends or hiring more people to do it. We structure our engagements to ensure we are spending our time on the most important work we can be doing. This level of focus makes us effective.
Finally, we reward people who take ownership of their time by working efficiently. Our metric for this is broad – client satisfaction, quality of responses, not generating work for clients with needless emails or detail, etc. And overall, as lawyers who specialize in slotting quickly into client businesses, we take the time to understand the business priorities and the space we’re working in, which is the most important factor in keeping us out of the weeds.
In this way, we try to actually address the root causes of why people feel their lives are out of balance and that work is taking up too much of the 24 hours we each have in each day. It’s a constant process of never doing things “just because” but it pays off in the form of happy lawyers. Fundamental, because happy lawyers are great to work with, which is a key piece of our value proposition to clients.