March 1st, 2013 | 6:00 am

Should We Replace ‘Work-Life Balance’ with ‘Autonomy’?

filed under Work-Life

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

New Accenture research, published today, shows that more and more employees globally feel they are getting a handle on work life balance. In fact, according to the study, the same percentage of men and women (70 percent) say they believe they can “have it all,” just maybe not all at the same time.

This shows that people feeling a sense of empowerment about their ability to negotiate their own career and personal demands.

The research (which consisted of an online survey of 4,100 business executives at medium and large companies around the world) reflects what Accenture’s Managing Director of Global Inclusion & Diversity Nellie Borrero called a growing trend. She believes corporate culture is evolving in a way that encourages people to take more control over their own career paths. Those stats on work life balance may be part of a new global employee autonomy paradigm.

Borrero said, “We’re starting to see a shift where people feel they can ask certain questions and ask for what they need to integrate their careers and their personal lives. We want leaders to recognize that whatever we are changing about workplace culture, it’s starting to work.”

As people gain more autonomy – the ability to ask for changes and make decisions about work and life – we are seeing them become more satisfied with their jobs, and more engaged with their companies.

Increase in Positivity

“The part I got really excited about,” Borrero continued, “is that both men and women feel they can have it all, it just depends on how you define ‘all.’”

That’s the crux of the report – that people are defining success on their own terms. “There is a diversity of what people want in their lives, and they are feeling very positive about the flexibility they have to integrate both work and personal demands,” Borrero said.

She continued, “To me, it’s an indicator that we’re trying to get it right. Collectively, we’re starting to get a sense that life is bigger than just work.”

In the survey, work life balance (cited by 56 percent) topped the list of how people would define career success. It was followed by money (46 percent), recognition (42 percent), and autonomy (42 percent).

I would argue, though, that autonomy is the fuel that powers work life balance. Having the power to choose (or at least negotiate with your manager) how, when, and where work gets done is a major driver behind work life satisfaction. Beyond that, the research showed, people are feeling positive about a number of other aspects that all fall under the autonomy umbrella.

For example, people are increasingly negotiating pay raises– a lot more: 49 percent of women and 57 percent of men in the 2013 survey reported that they have asked for a raise, compared to only 44 percent of women and 48 percent of men in the previous survey.

Borrero believes this change may be related to the recovering economy in some places – another factor contributing to a feeling of autonomy. “The economy is turning around in some parts of the world and people throughout the downturn have been very concerned about asking for something. Now they are more relaxed about having that conversation – they have more confidence, and secondly, there is that culture shift in organizations, where we see a change in the way leaders interact with people. There is a view that leaders are more open to having these conversations.”

That cultural shift – that employees are gaining the ability to interact with leaders in a new way – is also leading people to feel more positive about work, she continued. About half of the survey respondents (50 percent of women and 53 percent of men) were satisfied with their jobs – up almost ten percentage points from last year (when only 43 percent of women and 41 percent of men said they were satisfied with their jobs).

Setting Boundaries

The flip side to all this freedom, Borrero continued, is that when we have the ability to work anytime and anywhere, many people do. “When you love what you do, you want to respond right away. If you have the technology that enables you to do so, you can get caught up in that.”

She recalled a time when her daughter, a child at the time, noticed how she was responding immediately to every single ping on her lap top computer – while she was cooking dinner. “She said, ‘are you in a competition with someone?’”

“It made me understand that I was still in work mode, and that I had become way too caught up in being accessible. I was not doing it in a smart way. It’s a trap you can fall into and you need to set boundaries and commit to being present at home.”

With autonomy comes responsibility – both in maintaining our own commitments in the workplace, and our commitments at home. Setting those boundaries may become trickier as autonomy increases (40 percent of survey respondents called themselves “work-aholics”), but having the power and ability to set those boundaries as we each see fit is a positive step. As the research shows, women and men are feeling more empowered and more positive about their careers around the world. This should indicate to business leaders that the movement toward flexibility is creating a more engaged workplace.

1 comment

  1. Sarah Lamphere

    I have found an excellent work/life/famiy balance by living in the suburbs and working at a nearby suburban office park. I chose this lifestyle rather than suffering through the expense of private city schools,crime and public transportation. My youngest of three is preparing to graduate from high school, so I have enjoyed this healthy and convenient lifestyle for over 20 years. The free neighborhood public schools are excellent and it is easy to drop in on school activities and after school sports and arts events. My husband and I have both volunteered extensively at our children’s schools and feel very much “plugged into” the community. I have numerous friendships with other women through school and cultural and volunteer activities in my town. I enjoy yoga and fitness on the way to work at a variety of facilities and studios, and I leave my gym bag in the car, rather than lugging it around with my other belongings on public transportation. It is easy to run errands on the way home from work, using the flexibility and trunk space of my car. I never have to worry about my personal safety when working late and my children can easily take a supervised school bus or walk home from school. Health emergencies during the day are easy to attend to as the school and doctors are nearby. I am pleased with the choice I made.