Improving Work/Life Balance the Digital Way

By: | June 4, 2018 • 3 min read
Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than 3 decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected]

HR leaders must envision ways to use digital advances in technology to enable workers to live their whole lives each day, not just on weekends or vacations.

Some years ago, my family had planned a spring break trip to Disneyland. It was a dream long anticipated by my then-pre-teen daughter. But at the last minute, I was asked to attend a board of directors meeting in London. To balance the demands of family and work, I took my daughter with me and we had a wonderful time seeing the sights of that great European capital, blended with working on the board meeting’s deliverables.

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Today, making professional commitments and family travel blend together in our busy lives is commonplace. Back then, it was less typical, and those who took the risk were often seen as challenging cultural norms. Today, our multigenerational workforce asks: Why do work/life boundaries have to be so fixed? What can digital advances in technology do to enable us to live our whole lives each day, not just on weekends or vacations?

It’s heartening that organizations are using new digital advances, including artificial intelligence, to create a more human work environment in which employees are encouraged to be their best selves, professionally and personally, supported as entire people beyond the boundaries of their roles. Such an environment can break workers free from their desks through new technologies such as augmented reality, holographic computing, and voice and gesture controls—allowing us to connect and collaborate anywhere, any time. This new reality gives people more choice to craft the right work experience for them, as well as crafting more bespoke work experiences.

Does this sound too good to be true? It’s not. A major online retailer makes it possible for customer-service agents to flexibly choose their own schedules (and pay) with an online, free-market scheduling system and platform. Through a surge-pricing payment model made popular with ride-sharing services. Workers with hourly shifts that have greater call demand pay higher wages. Other companies, meanwhile, are looking to develop new smart systems for call-center workers that enable workers—both employees and freelancers—to see available work on their mobile devices and opt into, choose from, and have flexibility over work assignments, channels (phone, video or social media) and schedules.

AI-powered talent platforms like Woo.io are emerging that enable people to compose their own personal wish lists for work, anonymously matching people with potential employers based on criteria ranging from location, new challenges, desired projects, type and size of company, better work/life balance, ability to work from home and potential for career mobility. And one bank even has gone so far as to refer candidates to opportunities at other companies if they didn’t get the job—because it’s understood that a poor candidate experience can result in a loss of customers.

New digital advances in technology are also now recognizing the informal aspects of our work lives, giving us credit for many of the activities we do that are valuable. But, until now, these have largely been hidden from view. XaPI (otherwise known as Tin Can API), for example, quantifies and recognizes people’s informal learning that occurs from reading a blog, having an experience or participating in a meeting, so people can be given credit for the activities.

At one major retailer, employees receive daily expertise points based on quantified informal learning, combined with formal learning records and employee feedback data; AI then suggests new learning content or activities accordingly.

Other digital advances in technology, such as wearable devices or technology that monitors keystrokes on a computer, can now give us individualized feedback regarding the underlying factors that influence our satisfaction and performance at work. This might include everything from our social behaviors to our health, emotions, personal energy patterns, and where we are spending our time and attention.

Like with most things, these potential enablers also have some concerning downsides, most notably regarding privacy issues. Many of us are focused on the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation. How do we respect people’s privacy when collecting information to recognize the informal aspects of work, provide useful feedback to employees about their personal productivity habits, or create more customized practices for them? Employees may fear that their privacy has been broached, or that they work for an overly intrusive organization. The call to action for HR professionals is to help employees understand why and how data is being used, and to give them clear choices for opting in or out.

Another issue: If we give employees the bandwidth to make choices, how can we ensure their course of action is fully informed and includes a balanced consideration of both privacy and transparency? Again, a critical role for HR leaders is to provide communication and education regarding the range and impact different choices might have. Companies can also provide digital tools that can model the impacts of their choices.

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A few high-tech companies rocked the world of IT (and beyond) when they canceled their remote-work policies. Soon after, articles appeared speculating that remote-work policies would trend downward. The interesting update is that Gallup found that 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely last year. The reality is that, even for those who work in an office, we will need advanced technologies to connect with others in different office locations. ( The continual blending of work and home lives will only amplify this need.) From personal telepresence to live translation of languages to sharing photos, augmented reality and body-camera footage, scientists are working to make it easier than ever to connect across time and space—wherever we happen to be.

My family did eventually make it to Disneyland. We found it is always a trip worth the wait. As Walt Disney once said, “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.” Companies that build a culture that recognizes and responds to individual needs—breaking out of the boundaries of yesterday’s practices—will realize their future vision. And they’ll get more engaged and fully enabled employees in the bargain.