Latest From the Lab: What If Work Was a Symbiotic Relationship?


Ava plans work meetings around school drop-offs, pickups, and activities. Recently, after dropping off her kids before a 9 a.m. call, she got stuck in traffic and missed her meeting.

Many of us can relate to Ava, because work-life balance — something that’s been talked about for years — is about trying to achieve and maintain balance between two parallel parts of our lives. Yet, there are often more than two things to balance, and achieving balance — if possible — is temporary.

That’s why, more recently, the term work-life integration has emerged to illustrate the complex interconnection between life and work, and how we can’t really separate the two. Data from a 2022 survey reveals that 58% of approximately 1,300 respondents reported an increase in work-life integration over the last two years. However, 47% reported the blurred boundaries as concerning, with 34% saying they’re worried about the constant expectation to be available, and 32% concerned about increased hours.

Companies are losing out too. Employees are still resigning, and 1 in 5 workers are planning to quit their jobs. Organizational turnover is costly, replacing an employee potentially costs between 50% – 200% of their salary. If organizations want to cut the cost of turnover, then retaining employees is essential.

If balance and integration aren’t working, then it’s time for the next evolution of the work-life relationship. Which is why we are proposing a new type of relationship that is beneficial to all: “work-life symbiosis.” In ideal situations, work-life symbiosis would be regenerative to both employees and the organization; a relationship that is reciprocal and complementary, where everyone benefits. Sure, you can survive without each other, but life is better together. Here’s how organizations can get closer to work-life symbiosis.

Document and manage institutional knowledge.

Information is only good when it’s findable and useful, so write it down and create processes for organizing and sharing. Because Ava’s company values institutional knowledge management and uses processes and systems to track, organize, and clarify, when she misses a meeting because of traffic, it doesn’t delay project progress. In other words, information is stored outside of individuals’ brains, and there is an emphasis on how work gets done, as well as the end product. This creates clarity and consistency around expectations, level of effort, and roles, and increases communication. Ava is a part of a team that knows what she is working on, current project statuses, immediate next steps, and where information is stored, so her teammates know how to keep things moving during her unexpected absence.

Gather data with “smoke detectors.”

Think about the function of a smoke detector: to alert us early that something is wrong and give us time to respond.

If an organization has a goal of maintaining employee well-being, they need to define what behaviors they want to see and dig into the difficult work of outlining what behaviors they are actually seeing. With the gap of ideal and current behaviors defined, it’s time to design, implement, and test organizational smoke detectors.

Imagine two of the ideal behaviors are regularly working within the range of 38 to 42 hours and concretely defining “crunch times” with clear date parameters.

What might facilitate those behaviors?

  • Clearly defined stakeholders, project goals, roles, and responsibilities.
  • After-action reviews that dedicate time to institutional knowledge development to improve processes and systems based on lessons learned.

Therefore, some signals of difficulty maintaining well-being at work might be:

  • Working more than 42 hours a week and every project having a sense of urgency.
  • Limited project documentation and no clearly defined desired outcomes.

Develop mechanisms for supportive accountability.

Once you’ve detected the problems, you can create a strategy to move forward. No strategy can succeed without people being held accountable. Being held accountable is daunting, and that’s why it should start with picking up a mirror (self-directed feedback) instead of pointing a finger (guiding others through feedback). Additionally, accountability should be supportive by being anchored to specific goals that are clearly defined, actionable, and practiced regularly.

To hold themselves accountable, Ava and her team implemented a procedure, a “quality assurance check,” that occurs each time they’re assigned a task. This allows them to quickly — and regularly — clarify outstanding ambiguity and align their level of effort to the project goals and desired outcomes.

The team members also report when they work more than 42 hours a week to the team lead, who then aggregates the information quarterly to identify patterns and present the trends, followed by a brainstorm on how to incorporate learning into future project planning.

These efforts have created a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship because employees can take time off or deal with unexpected parts of life, and organizational performance doesn’t suffer; instead, it often improves.

This is what great looks like in a symbiotic work-life relationship. Ava, the working mom who laughs heartily at her own jokes, is stuck in traffic and going to miss an important meeting. But because Ava’s organization and team have put in the hard work of documenting and managing institutional knowledge, gathering data with “smoke detectors,” and developing mechanisms for supportive accountability, Ava can make one quick phone call to her team lead and have someone else fill in. She can be human without feeling like she’s leaving her teammates — whom she deeply cares about — in a bad situation.

Author: Brigid Lynn, Ph.D, MPH

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