Hybrid is actually making work-life balance harder

Hybrid is actually making work-life balance harder

‘Scope creep’ and unresolved conflict can lead to burnout and declining productivity. How can we design hybrid working to better achieve that elusive work-life balance?


Hybrid working has ushered in a new era of work-life balance. In many ways it should make the juggle of work-life easier — the flexibility it brings, the time saving benefits of not commuting as much. However, the rise of burnout in our industry would suggest that hybrid working alone can not be the magic bullet.

In fact, I would argue that without the intervention of organisational change and individual behaviour changes, hybrid working could actually make work-life balance harder. This is because hybrid working makes boundaries between work life and home life less clear.

It seems like we are all constantly trying to achieve that elusive work-life balance. It gets harder as you get older and acquire more responsibilities, whether that’s at home or at work. Promotion brings with it responsibilities to your team, you may have budgets to manage, increasingly you might be committing time and energy to wider industry initiatives. At home you might be a parent or a carer or just have people in your life who need your support.

‘Burnout’ is a relatively new term. However, it is one that I would urge our industry not to dismiss as a fad. This is a serious issue. Stress is linked to the biggest killers including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and dementia, as well as autoimmune diseases — something my father suffered from. It affects our physical health as much as our mental health.

Unlike other mental health challenges there is less medical intervention for stress in terms of drugs. All the advice is to mitigate the effects by changing behavioural practices to better cope with stress or find a way to avoid it. In the current climate of a talent crisis colliding with a cost of living crisis the advice to avoid stress feels particularly unrealistic.

So what can we do to shore up our own resilience and support our teams in these challenging times? It’s a topic I have a personal fascination with having weathered some particularly tough times over the last three years. For me, having clear boundaries has been one of the most successful ways to navigate work-life balance and protect myself from burnout.

Carla Faria, executive and personal coach agrees: “Setting boundaries isn’t just about looking at the work, it also means thinking deeply about what’s important to you. So, if one of your core values is ‘integrity’, you know that you have to set your boundaries in such a way that you are able to deliver what you say you can deliver. Knowing your core values gives you the best insight into how to structure your boundaries.”

Let’s look at some areas that businesses and individuals can address to better navigate boundaries in a hybrid world. 

Protect against scope creep 

Scope creep is the enemy of work-life balance and also profitability. Projects without a clear scope can grow into beasts that feed themselves — leading to endless feedback, constantly moving deadlines, and expectations that are way beyond what anyone anticipated at the start.

A clear project scope needs to include, not only an outline of the objectives and a suggested solution, but also an agreed timeline with responsibilities on both sides, and yes some caveats as to what is included and not included.

A written proposal, agreed on in advance with your client, provides the opportunity to point to boundaries and re-negotiate, to have grown up conversations about where extra resources (money or time) can be added to properly account for revised expectations.

Provide clarity on roles and responsibilities

Have you ever been asked to get involved in a project that already has lots of resources and no clear role in terms of what you are expected to contribute?

Conversely, have you been given a task that doesn’t seem to align with the resource assigned to it, either in terms of the size of the team or a matching skill set to the task? Working out roles and responsibilities across your team and workload avoids duplicated efforts and is a lever to improve efficiency, productivity and team motivation.

Roles and responsibilities create boundaries that are helpful for individuals and businesses. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to stay in their clearly defined role — that would be the enemy of learning and progression.

However, when stepping outside of a role ideally there should be a clear business need and the individual should be fairly rewarded for their additional efforts. Boundaries are not walls — they are more like protective guard rails.

Practice the art of saying no

When I came back from maternity leave seven years ago, I devoured business books that could offer me wisdom on how to cope with my new work-life reality. Particular favourites written by working mothers included I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam and Sane: How I Shaped Up My Mind, Improved My Mental Strength and Found Calm by Emma Young.

However, one piece of advice that has really stuck comes from a more classic management consultancy book: Getting Things Done — the Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. The really simple task management model of ‘do it’, ‘delegate it’ or ‘defer it’ has stood the test of time for me.

The hard part of delegating is that it means saying no and passing the responsibility to someone else who is better equipped. Meanwhile, deferring shows you recognise it’s either a big task that you will tackle later, or that it’s not important and you are putting it on a long list of things that probably won’t ever get done.

This is just another way of saying no. Boundaries are behaviours that need to be put into practice every day. This is just as important as creating organisational change through project and team design.

Jane Brendgen, founder of Compassionate Cultures, outlines why behaviour around boundaries is particularly important to scrutinise in a hybrid world: “When we’re working from home we can so easily get caught up in the momentum of doing and work longer hours than we had intended. It’s surprising how quickly this can become a habit and, as is the case with most habits, difficult to break!”

Recognise and make space for different types of work

I’ve always enjoyed really deep-focused work, but also love collaborating with others, which is more interactive and conversational. Conversely, there are times when I just want to crack on and tick off a load of really simple tasks.

All of these ways of working are necessary to successful businesses but we don’t always acknowledge, communicate and design our week around our workload. We might try to write a big debrief in a communal working space for example. Hybrid working has given us the opportunity to change this and build our working week around these different types of tasks. We can be the architects of a really productive and rewarding diary if we create boundaries for different types of work.

Carla Faria, executive and personal coach, cites the work of Greg McKeown: “He talks about the power of ‘monk mode’ in his brilliant book, Essentialism. The principle is that you ‘shut out the world’, for a period of time, turn off distractions and notifications and simply focus on the work at hand. I love this approach because sometimes, solitude is needed to produce quality work. In Greg’s words, we need to ‘advocate for space’.”

Be prepared for conflict

NABS, the well-being charity for our industry, is seeing an increase in calls to their advice line regarding conflict in the workplace. One hypothesis is that an over reliance on Teams or Zoom could be partly responsible – video calls just don’t provide a safe space for difficult conversations.

Sue Todd, CEO of NABS, reports: “We are on the frontline of emerging issues and whilst it’s concerning to see that conflict in the workplace is on the rise we can offer the insights and expertise to help your teams navigate this in a hybrid world.”

It’s certainly true that if you start to communicate boundaries you are likely to encounter some conflict. Unfortunately this is particularly pronounced if you are a woman as we are conditioned by society to think of women as supportive, co-operative and generally helpful. It’s important to recognise that conflict is a potential consequence of creating boundaries. Getting comfortable with conflict is a necessary bedfellow to the art of navigating boundaries.

Helen Tiffany, CEO of The Coach House, has some handy advice. She suggests using questions to push back: “This can be a more collaborative way to negotiate. Eliciting the solution from the other person helps them consider the other perspective and stops the conversation from becoming combative and defensive.”

Investment in training is key to a healthy hybrid culture

The rise of burnout demonstrates there is more work to be done to achieve healthy flexible working. It’s not enough to think that if you have a 2/3 home/office model established, the job is done. Wider organisational change needs to happen across processes and within workplace cultures.

Addressing any issues around boundaries is a good way to tackle the new challenges of a hybrid world. Investment in training and coaching to support your talent will ensure they are better equipped to successfully negotiate boundaries and deliver their best work with their mental health intact.

Anna Sampson is the founder of Anna Sampson Consulting and was previously insight and strategy director at magazine marketing body Magnetic.

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