Man working from home on laptop while holding a baby on his lap.
Both work-life integration and work-life balance are valid means of achieving an equilibrium between personal and professional responsibilities. — Getty Images/Pekic

When it comes to time spent on professional responsibilities versus time spent on personal ones, it’s crucial to find a level of equilibrium. However, this might look different for each person. Some professionals strive to reach work-life balance, while others aim to achieve work-life integration — and though similar, the two terms are distinct.

“There is a difference between work-life balance and work-life integration, and it is one that many people are struggling with as we look to come out of our pandemic work situations,” said Stephen Kohler, CEO and founder of Audira Labs. “Work-life balance is focused on keeping your work life and your personal life separate, but equal, whereas work-life integration is centered on the belief that there is no distinction between the two and that both must coexist in harmony.”

[Read: Five Small Business Owners Share Their Secrets for Work-Life Balance]

What is work-life integration?

Work-life integration involves blending both personal and professional responsibilities. Rather than viewing work and personal time as separate entities, busy professionals can find areas of compromise. This might look like completing household chores while on a conference call or bringing children into the office when schools are closed.

The largest advantage of work-life integration is flexibility. When employees are able to properly coordinate their schedules and responsibilities, they are more likely to experience satisfaction in all areas of their life. On the flip side, studies have shown that boundary violations — when work and personal life seep into each other — can also have negative consequences. When work-life integration is out of balance, employees may actually experience decreased satisfaction and productivity in both areas.

“While work life integration is a powerful shift for organizations, it’s also important for all employees to know what boundaries they need to set,” Kohler told CO—. “Make sure employers understand and respect them, and [know] that their integration is a healthy one that improves their work-life.”

What is work-life balance?

In work-life balance, a person equally prioritizes the demands of their career and their life outside of it. In contrast to work-life integration, the boundaries between work and personal life are more clearly defined with designated “work hours.”

However, in today’s remote work world, it can be difficult to maintain work-life boundaries in practice. For example, employees may be tempted to check their work email or answer a text from a colleague after they’ve “logged out” of their home office. Additionally, work-life balance may look different from day to day. Someone may need to spend more time at the office leading up to a big launch, or they may need to prioritize home responsibilities to take care of a newborn.

Tailoring an employee's work situation to their work style and personal situation can help create a productive, balanced work environment.

Kaitlin Milliken, multimedia editor, Innovation Leader

Work-life integration vs. work-life balance: What's the difference?

Both work-life integration and work-life balance are valid means of achieving an equilibrium between personal and professional responsibilities. The primary difference between work-life integration and work-life balance lies in how they achieve that equilibrium.

Work-life integration seeks to bring work and life closer together. Rather than drawing lines between “work time” and “personal time,” professionals can tackle their responsibilities at the times that work well for them. Work-life balance involves having your work life and personal life coexist, but each thrives separately. Employees maintain firm boundaries between home and office, allowing them to devote their full attention to each at a given time.

[Read more: 6 Ways to Improve Employee Work-Life Balance]

According to Dr. Rebecca Mannis, learning specialist at Ivy Prep Learning Center, “balance” may not be the right way for every employee to think about their work and personal lives in the remote-first business world.

“As task demands and task contexts change, we need to modify our approach,” said Dr. Mannis. “Don’t think ‘balance,’ because that implies perfection and evenness that is unrealistic and therefore a setup for frustration and feelings of failure. Instead, think about the brain as … [a place] where there is ... a brimming of activity that keeps us attuned. That’s the reality of how our brains work, what we need to do in these new roles, and what we need to keep in mind [in] this new work-life landscape.”

How employers can support work-life integration

While employers can’t control the demands of their employees’ personal lives, they can support work-life integration. To do this, it’s critical for employers to understand exactly what their individual employees need from them to foster their ideal work and life environments.

“You need work-life balance in order to have a healthy work-life integration, [and] … it’s essential for employers to have a clear understanding of what their employees need and want,” said Melissa Price, a multi-unit franchise partner with Burn Boot Camp. “By creating a dialogue, you’re able to foster a work environment that makes sense for your team, leading to longstanding employees and business longevity.”

“Tailoring an employee's work situation to their work style and personal situation can help create a productive, balanced work environment,” added Kaitlin Milliken, multimedia editor of Innovation Leader. “Each person works differently. Some thrive in an office setting daily and others are just as efficient working at home some or all of the time.”

One simple potential solution is offering remote work collaboration tools to help employees stay engaged and productive, regardless of when or where they work. Employee perks such as tuition reimbursement, childcare and flexible telecommuting arrangements can also help employees achieve their personal goals without sacrificing their professional ones.

“An employee’s personal life does not need to be something that competes with work,” Milliken noted. “Enabling people to tend to other parts of their life can help them avoid burnout.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published July 15, 2021