Sarah Devereaux spent 14 years moving through training, program development and executive roles at Google. Today, she leads marketing and customer success for Murmur, a platform that helps teams co-create policies, processes and work agreements that clarify their ways of working. She also offers leadership coaching and advisory services as the founder of Third Coast Coaching. Originally from the great state of Michigan, Sarah now lives in Colorado with her family. She is passionate about protecting the environment, lifting diverse perspectives, and battling burnout.
At the beginning of the summer, it seemed like the coronavirus pandemic was winding down in the U.S. Positivity rates were dropping across much of the country, people were starting to gather again, and many vaccinated Americans were shedding their masks in public. We started to dream of normalcy. We started to make plans.
Companies released their "return to office" guidelines and hybrid work manifestos. There was a deluge of studies, how-to guides, and opinion pieces on how to make hybrid work successful. That "new normal" that everyone had been talking about was right around the corner, and we were going to be ready for it. And then, just as quickly as our hope appeared, it vanished. Delta had arrived.
The concept of hybrid work always seemed a little off to me. It somehow felt like we were trying to take aspirin after major surgery. It just wasn't the right solution. The world of work is being overturned, and the challenges we face can't be solved by yet another set of rules, even if they are more flexible. We need approaches that maximize trust, support, and flexibility if we are to combat rising burnout and be ready for whatever our increasingly uncertain world throws at us next. New rules and restrictions on when, where, and how we work will only leave us vulnerable to more costly disruptions.
Perhaps, as is so often the case, we're asking the wrong question. Maybe it's not how we build hybrid workplaces or define hybrid work. Maybe we need to be asking: How can we build hybrid lives? Here are a few ideas of where to start.
Reject the work-life balance lie
Let's get this one out of the way: Work-life balance doesn't exist (it probably never did) and we need to stop chasing it. The truth is that each of us is one being living one life. It's incredibly difficult to separate our "personal lives" from our "work lives" because it's all just one tangle of experiences and emotions. Driving an arbitrary wedge between the two just reduces self-awareness, vulnerability, and care while increasing stress. We need to allow ourselves to be whole human beings leading whole lives, and urge our companies to develop policies and norms that reflect that reality. There are a lot of options here, but flexible hours, WFA (work from anywhere) policies, and unlimited vacation are a few good places to start. Flexibility is a very personal thing. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the rhythm of your life, which is why policies that give workers more freedom over how they spend their time tend to yield the biggest rewards for everyone.
Focus on results, not time
In the U.S., despite all of the buzz around flexibility, many of us are still shackled to the idea of working more than 40 hours per week, Monday through Friday. Yet everything else in our lives (including our energy) doesn't operate on such a predictable timetable. Having full flexibility around when, where, and how we work gives us the freedom to focus on results vs. time, and allows us to be more productive in fewer hours. It's important to be open to breaking with convention and working (or not working!) outside of what's considered "normal." Understanding your productivity signals will help. Personally, I tend to yawn and fidget when it's time to step away from a piece of work. If I push through, I might finish, but it'll typically take me two or three times longer and leave me pretty cranky and depleted. Sometimes not working when I feel like I should is actually what's best for the work, and my relationship to it. Learn to read your own signals, and then ask for what you need to be at your best.
Set permeable boundaries
Boundary setting is a favorite tactic of wellbeing gurus and work-life balance advocates. It can be effective, when used in moderation and held lightly. It's when boundaries become rigid rules that they decrease in value. It's important to have a general idea of where your boundaries are, but you also need to trust your judgement and realize when it's appropriate to flex. One way to do this is to identify your "non-negotiables." These could be daily must-haves, like taking a walk with your dog every morning, or goals that you're trying to hit in a less specific timeframe. For me, I try to have at least five mornings of yoga and three school drop-offs per week. Sometimes I have to pivot, and I end up picking up instead of dropping off and my yoga gets squeezed in after the kids are in bed (and let's be real, sometimes none of it happens at all!), but my mindset around it allows every adjusted target to feel like a choice instead of a failure.
It's also important to communicate when you're planning on flexing in a way that may affect others. If I'm just not feeling it on a Thursday morning and I decide to take the rest of the day off and make up the work over the weekend, I make sure my team is aware, but also my family. There is no greater guilt for me than a little voice asking why I'm working on a Saturday. No matter what you do, emotions will likely run high while you're finding your sweet spot around the way you work. But I find setting expectations and discussing the trade-offs helps a ton.
Every great learning moment starts with a great question.