The myth of work-life balance: You can have it all, but it ain’t easy
A modern approach to integrating work and life

by John Salustri — Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of BOMA Magazine — No one on their deathbed ever said they should’ve spent more time working. So goes the old saw. But, judging from the amount of time people spend glued to their cellphones, one might wonder if that’s still true.

In today’s highly plugged-in business culture, where professionals at all levels are being tasked to do more with less, finding the balance between work and life can be next to impossible. Add to that the reality that much of our socializing is also tech-based, thanks to such computerized narcotics as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, and the line blurs even more. Today, that deathbed scene might very well include one last selfie.

Let’s face it. Work-life balance is a myth. Work trumps life virtually every time. And, it’s a costly choice. As life coach Regan Walsh wrote in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review: “Studies show that our brain and body have trouble distinguishing between the kind of stress caused by real danger (our house is on fire) and perceived danger (a boss with too many demands). In response, they release hormones and chemicals to speed up our heart rate, increase blood pressure and stimulate our muscles.…But, our bodies can’t sustain that level of readiness for long periods of time. After a while, they begin to break down. That can result in anything from chronic headaches to nausea and insomnia or more serious physical disorders, including heart attacks, hypertension and, of course, stroke.” And, you were expecting a gold watch for your years of dedication on the job.

Like the cobbler’s children

The irony of the work-life issue is that property professionals are on call 24/7 and rarely unplugged, even as they try to maximize the tenant amenities offered to reduce stress for building occupants. Clearly, it’s a common problem in this industry, but, happily, there are antidotes to overwork. The key is applying them.

Today, the concept of work-life balance, all the rage a decade ago, has virtually disappeared. “When people hear the word balance, they always think it has to be equal, like the scales of Justice,” says Denise C. Webster, Emeritus CPM, president of WM Consultants. “To think you can balance work and your personal life means you’ll spend the same amount of time in each. But, you have a minimum of eight hours of work and, hopefully, eight hours of sleep. That would leave eight hours of downtime for a true balance,” hardly a practical day for any property manager.

To trot out one more old saw, it comes down to quality over quantity, or as Webster puts it, “productivity versus relaxation. You’ve got two separate goals fighting for your attention.”

Ideally, those goals shouldn’t be at odds at all. That’s why those in the know speak more accurately—and more tellingly—of work-life integration, which essentially means “how your life and work mesh,” says Walsh (see “Life Wheel Assessment” graphic). “It’s important that your values align with the work you’re doing and you can integrate the two things you love.” Of course, perfect integration is often also a myth, Walsh points out, and there are times when each—work or your private life—will demand more of your focus. Like a pendulum, it might swing both ways, but it’s rarely in balance.

Life Wheel Assessment­ Life coach Regan Walsh uses this life wheel as an analytical tool with clients, designed essentially to set priorities. Clients are directed to rank the importance of each dimension of their lives and to ask themselves how much time, energy and resources they would like to devote to each aspect to achieve their preferred balance of work-life integration.

Life Wheel Assessment­
Life coach Regan Walsh uses this life wheel as an analytical tool with clients, designed essentially to set priorities. Clients are directed to rank the importance of each dimension of their lives and to ask themselves how much time, energy and resources they would like to devote to each aspect to achieve their preferred balance of work-life integration.

And that, in large part, is governed by the stage of life you happen to be in. Generally speaking, a 20- or 30-something new to the industry is more likely to be laser-focused on climbing the corporate ladder than they are on a house in the suburbs with a picket fence and swings in the backyard. A professional with growing kids, on the other hand, often will find themselves torn between the tenant meeting and the class play. And, the empty-nester might gain more freedom to pursue work—or other interests outside of work, for that matter.

It should be noted that four of the professionals interviewed for this article are married, and Walsh has young children at home. So does Andrew Romerdahl, MAI, CCIM, senior regional director of Real Estate and Construction for Providence St. Joseph Health. On the other end of the spectrum, Webster is a grandmother with freedom to pursue her interests, whether they be work or play. Melanie Colbert, principal of Operations with LBA Realty, is a newcomer to the empty-nest stage of life and is finding more time to engage in her career without the guilt of missing school concerts and play dates.

And, that’s a good thing for Colbert, a self-confessed “workaholic,” who, like many in commercial real estate, puts in long hours and is often on the road between properties. “I ask my people to work hard, but they know I’ll always be right there with them, leading the charge,” she notes.

Before the nest empties, though, it can be tough to feed both sides of one’s life. Romerdahl just finished an intense time of shuttling back and forth between Providence’s offices in Seattle and Anchorage, Alaska, to manage those two regions while the firm staffed up in both. He saw it as an opportunity. “I knew what that entailed going in, and I knew the alternative was for them to hire another person,” he says. “Rather, there was the realization that I could take on more.” As most things in the battle between work and life, “it was a trade-off.”

The downside of the trade-off was the three days a week minimum that he was away from family. In the course of the past year, he estimates he logged 180,000 miles traveling back and forth on airplanes.

A matter of give-and-take

The upside of that trade-off was the company’s understanding when it came time for Romerdahl to relocate to Seattle. “My wife and I agreed that it would be better for the kids to stay in school and postpone the move until the summer,” a decision the company embraced. It should be noted, of course, that these types of decisions are more complicated in single-parent households, where being away regularly might not be feasible.

In the case of Providence, a healthcare company, it would be in direct contradiction of its mission to not support that end of the bargain, says Romerdahl. But, apparently, it’s also a mandate for real estate companies without that specialized focus. If tenant amenities—fitness centers, concierge services and the like—can be seen as antidotes to workplace stress, it makes sense that the company providing those services would practice what it preaches. According to Colbert, LBA Realty does. “Our managing partner says we can’t sell it if we don’t live it.”

LBA’s corporate office is located in a BOMA 360-designated mixed-use development in Irvine, California, called Park Place, which the firm also owns and manages. It’s “highly amenitized, for the sake of all employees.” Not only does the campus offer tenants bikes for rent, access to local hiking areas and free Wi-Fi, but LBA also hosts a “12 Months of Giving” campaign to encourage volunteerism, which includes a food drive and a fundraiser for the community’s homeless population.

Such amenities provide a needed diversion from the stress of work, Colbert says, and many are geared to promote socialization in the working community that makes up the tenant roster. “You need entertainment areas with foosball or ping pong in order to relax and enjoy your colleagues,” she says. Of course, those same amenities make staying at work more enjoyable and reset the productivity level.

That’s all great for work, but Colbert and Romerdahl both confess that they’ve been tweaked by their families to unplug. “To my wife’s chagrin, I’m usually on my phone from first thing in the morning to close to when I go to bed at night,” says Romerdahl. “Old-school property managers will say this is a 24 hour business. It’s not that bad, but it’s certainly not eight-to-five.”

“Work trumps the personal,” says Colbert. “In my case, I know that’s true. When the phone rings, you step out of the restaurant or walk into another room to deal with whatever issue it is. My family accuses me of not being present. You take a peek at your emails and you’re all at once going down a different path.” And, she adds, you can’t “do” both home and work simultaneously. “Multitasking is also a myth.”

Work: The fun place to be

Whether you call it work-life balance or the trendier work-life integration, the implication is a comparison of two parts. But, our lives are much more complex than that, and a perfectly rounded life—in this wildly imperfect equation—includes giving to oneself, separate of both work and family. It’s enough just to juggle work time and downtime. Folding in “me time” can be as elusive as the Holy Grail (see “‘Me Time’ and How to Get It” sidebar).

The other implication is that work is something somehow to be counteracted. But, work, like family, is also a source of satisfaction in one’s life, at least if you like your job. As Romerdahl says, part of the allure of work is opportunity.

There’s also the aforementioned socialization aspect. Romerdahl says the people he surrounds himself with make the job less of a chore. “The positive power of work comes with surrounding yourself with good people,” he says. “I consider the majority of my coworkers friends, and that makes a huge difference, given how much of your time you spend with them.”

Colbert agrees. “I’m so blessed to have a fulfilling career,” she says. “It’s fun and challenging. I enjoy my job 90 percent of the time, and not a lot of people can say that.”

Even if you love your job, however, taking time to yourself is vital to maintain your physical and mental health. Perhaps counterintuitively, this can be especially challenging for those without spouses or children. Without an “excuse” to leave work on time, single adults may find themselves shouldering more than their fair share of the workload.

How to unplug

Real downtime—as opposed to just socializing at work—is also key to being one’s best in the high pressure reality of careers in commercial real estate. “We all know people who can’t get out of the work mentality,” says Romerdahl. “They run themselves ragged and haven’t taken a vacation for five years because they think they can’t turn their backs on their portfolio. It’s neither healthy nor sustainable.”

Even on vacation, most property professionals “can’t fully unplug for a week at a time,” says Colbert. And, that’s when boundaries come into play. “You have to provide boundaries your families buy into,” she says. “Agree that you’ll work 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night so things don’t pile up.”

Essentially, versions of that rule also apply throughout the year. “There are times when I just have to silence the phone and put it down and away from me,” she says, because, “if it’s near me and I hear it buzzing, I’ll answer it.”

And, just as there are expectations for family, so should there be for work. “On weekends, I tell people to call me only if it’s an emergency,” says Colbert. “You owe your family your full attention when you’re with them, just as your employer deserves your full attention at work.” Also under the heading of managing expectations, Romerdahl adds, don’t underestimate the power of the email away message.

The key word for the Providence executive is “mindfulness.” In his year of extreme travel, Romerdahl found how much he missed walking his kids to school. “It became scary to me.” So, he urges managers “to keep sight of what’s really important. If you see personal opportunity, take that whenever you can, even if it’s in small bites. It’s easy enough to get up before anyone else and be at the office. But, in the long run, is the marginal benefit there?” It’s up to each person to decide for themselves.

And, don’t be fooled. Even life coaches find true work-life integration hard to nail down. “I’m not there yet,” says Walsh. “I won’t see my children much today.” But, she avoids the guilt, no matter where she is. “When I’m working, I’m very present, and I’m unplugged when I’m with my kids. Show up when you can for dinner or the soccer game without a laptop or cellphone, and you can rid yourself of your guilt.”

In the quest to have it all, it’s easy to look at someone else’s progress with envy. Avoid that trap, says Webster. “The moment you compare your story to someone else’s, you’re probably robbing yourself of joy,” she explains. “Ultimately, you have to live your story, and decide what works for you.” Whatever your choices, guilt and frustration, after all, are the worst ways to spend your precious time.

“Me Time” and How to Get It
“When you take care of yourself, you have more to give. When you’re depleted, you can’t offer as much to employees, tenants or family,” says Regan Walsh, about the power of “me time.” “When I make time for myself, I’m a better mom, wife, friend and coach, which means everyone wins.”

So, we thought it interesting to ask the professionals in this article to rate themselves on how well they give themselves that precious alone time. On a scale of one to 10, Walsh came in highest. “I’d give myself an eight,” she says. “On a perfect day, I’ll carve out an hour and usually work out. When I can’t make that happen, I invest in small things, experiences that make me feel good, like a cup of coffee at my favorite coffee shop or a smoothie at my favorite juice shop. I also know that when I’m at the end of my rope, I need to ask for help.” That, she says, is very hard, but, “I’m getting better at asking, which frees up time for me.”

Andrew Romerdahl currently rates himself a lower, but still healthy, five (a reaction, no doubt, to his year of travel). But, he admits it’s still a struggle. “I’ve lost sight of this because we’ve been so busy, but exercise and staying active is a really good way to give yourself me time. It’s too easy to say, ‘I’ll just go home, sit on the couch and have a beer.’ In fact, I’m trying to find a new way to re-integrate exercise right now. It’s a matter of remaining mindful.”

Denise Webster’s rating varies. “Different phases or times in my life get different scores,” she says. “Currently, I’m near retirement and in the empty-nest stage.” Her me-time rating can swing anywhere from a low of three to a high of five, when she’ll curl up with a book; engage herself in sewing, quilting and knitting; or work her tractor on her family’s 30-acre farm.

Our other empty-nester, Melanie Colbert, gives herself a two—with an asterisk. “Part of that is because I choose it,” she explains, indicating again her fulfillment at work. Her escape of choice is exercise, but, “for many years as a working mom with children at home, that all went by the wayside. All working moms are challenged with keeping our minds and bodies healthy, which gets pushed aside when there’s work and children pulling on you.”

Now, she says, she can focus a bit more on herself, even “if I get home at 9:00 p.m. I’ll do my exercise, even if it’s just yoga and stretching, or to go for a walk with my husband. I find I can be a bit more selfish with my time.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of GlobeSt.com. Prior to launching GlobeSt.com, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.

BOMA Magazine is the official magazine of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. It is a leading source for the latest news, issues and trends affecting the commercial real estate industry.