Man walking on a rope

Forget work-life balance. Think work-life fulfillment.

The Internet didn’t create the idea of “work-life balance.” Professionals have long sought to balance their career and personal life. But there is a link. Because many of the technologies that emerged in the Internet era have blurred the lines between being “at work” and “at home.” Before then, no one worried about whether or not to check their email during Little League practice because there simply wasn’t email to check or devices to check email.

Once those lines started blurring, however, the idea that “work” and “life” needed to be kept in balance really took off. Serious books were written. Academic papers were published. Companies began promoting work-life-focused initiatives. The problem was—and still is—that the aspiration for balance has been flawed from the start. Balance, after all, suggests equal weight: just as much “work” as “life.” A state that doesn’t allow for highly personal dynamics of work and life, which for most people evolve and transform over time. 

Then there’s the false choice implied by the artificial separation of “work” and “life.” That career stands separate and distinct from life itself, with just a hint that work is something to be endured in contrast to life’s all-around wonderfulness. This conception simply doesn’t suit the many professionals who find as much fulfillment in their work as in their personal lives. Or professionals who go through periods when they are focused on their career, electing to forgo leisure time. Yet that sort of intentional trade-off is an imbalance in the work-life-balance formulation. 

We can’t ignore, however, that new technologies did in fact blur the distinction between time spent working and the times when we’re not. Long before smartphones, professionals were “logging on” to check email in the evening. Or browsing airfare websites for an upcoming vacation before walking into a meeting. 

Fast forward to today. The dividing line between work and leisure has been effectively erased, yet many of us still expend a lot of mental energy wishing for a “balance” that’s probably impossible to actually pull off. So if we want to find fulfillment in all areas of our lives, what’s to be done?

We first need a better understanding of what people want from work, which we’ll explore by examining the state of remote work (telecommuting) among professionals today. Remote workers are a good test case because it’s an area where work and life tend to blend and overlap continually. Trends in this area help us plot a path towards leaving the impossible work-life balancing act behind. And, instead, achieving a work-life harmony that allows us to find fulfillment in all parts of our lives.

Workspaces without walls

Remote work takes place right at the intersection of “work” and “life.” It includes alternative work arrangements like telecommuting as well as outside consultants, freelancers, and solopreneurs. The explosive growth in remote work—today four times more professionals regularly work remotely than in 1995—is another workplace transformation driven by computing, mobility, and Internet technologies. So it’s worth taking a look at the ways remote workers harmonize work and life to achieve fulfillment.

Gallup analyzed the perceived benefits of working remotely and found “that flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job.” Interestingly, the study found that employee engagement rose along with hours spent working remotely—higher levels of remote work, higher levels of engagement with their employer.

Another survey asked whether you’re more likely to love your job if you work from home. And in fact, the data showed that telecommuters are nearly twice as likely to love their jobs as their in-office colleagues. The survey author interpreted the data as follows: “Working remotely isn’t always easy; there’s isolation, a fear of missing out, miscommunication and more. So it seems that to overcome those pitfalls, a successful remote worker has to be driven and hard working. There’s often less support (emotional, administrative, managerial, etc.) for telecommuting and mobile workers. So the only way for them to survive and still achieve their desired career success is to push themselves to be the best and be willing to work all night to hit every deadline.” 

Bringing this back to work-life issues, these findings demonstrate that greater flexibility in where, when, and how we work leads to greater happiness. But is this sense of fulfillment driven by being better able to incorporate more “life” elements into our work day?

Towards work-life fulfillment

Disconnecting from the mental workplace has become more difficult the more we use devices that notify us in real-time about emails or messages. After all, the average American now spends around 5 hours a day on their mobile device. Gallup found in 2013 that remote workers log more hours, averaging 4 extra hours per week. Another study found that working longer hours posed no extra threat of burnout for freelancers; though professionals who were unable to take their mind off work reported more physical aches and pains. 

As our time on devices increases, so do stress levels. On a ten-point scale, people who check their mobile devices “regularly, but not constantly” average a score of 4.4; while those who were “constantly checking their work e-mail even during days off” averaged 6.0. That’s 36% more stress. Notably, 65% of the more than 3,500 respondents thought that a digital “detox” might help, yet only 28% of them had ever actually tried it.

Aware that employees perform better when refreshed and focused, many employers are taking it upon themselves to help reduce the burden by scheduling “no email” rules, or paying people to take required vacations. However, when it comes to finding harmony between work and life, decisions regarding priorities and time management fall primarily to us.

The problem is the solution

Technology has inadvertently made it more difficult to maintain boundaries between work and everything-else. Perhaps it is time to dispose of this work-life balance notion altogether and, instead, use these same technologies to help us prioritize and manage our time in all areas of life. To abandon work-life balance in favor of work-life fulfillment.

Digital technology continues to transform our notion of work. And it’s also the best way to support our efforts to find harmony between our career goals and lifestyle needs. Think of work-life fulfillment as having all the benefits of balance without requiring the impossible task of keeping everything equal at all times.