Work to live or live to work?

April 7, 2021

A man rides his bike through the fall woods.

The COVID pandemic has turned our common understanding of work/life balance on its head. For some, the pandemic opened the door to more freedom and productivity. For others, it was the opposite. Zoom meetings with crying toddlers or struggling school-age learners were neither enjoyable nor productive. We learned where you landed on this spectrum had a lot to do with the age of your kids, the type of work, and often demographic factors (gender, career tenure, housing).

How work gets done post-pandemic is anyone’s guess. Talk of hybrid models, going back to “normal”, and breakout rooms vs. board rooms in office remodeling discussions all lead to an important Pandora's Box question: How do career and work interface with life?

I’ve been accused of doing life right. In this career-defines-you era, that isn’t always a compliment. My philosophy: A little bit of retirement every now and then.  In practice this might look like going for the bike ride on a gorgeous day. Or perhaps taking that impromptu long lunch with a long-lost friend. Or become your kids’ soccer team assistant coach. In general, just say YES to life-edifying opportunities that come your way. Don’t let your career take priority over these experiences.

Cory takes a mid-day lake skate on "wild ice," a once-a-decade Minnesota phenomenon

This approach works exceptionally well with a work-from-home or hybrid work model. The hurdles that make room for these life activities don’t exist in a home office. There is no need to justify or explain to your boss, co-workers, or employees. You can just do it.

This has always been the core fear and resistance for hiring managers and business leaders to WFH or hybrid models; they fear a significant downturn in productivity. Admittedly, I share that fear as both a boss and for my own work. It’s understandable. However, a year of physical distancing has demonstrated WFH works exceptionally well, often improving productivity. In reality, these “retirement” activities interspersed throughout your work days often enhance energy and creativity, thus improving productivity. What we might lose in traditional work hours we gain in productivity and innovative thinking. Team morale, job satisfaction, employee loyalty, and increased engagement when teams actually meet in person again are other potential benefits to a flexible approach to work.

Cory & Kate Horvath enjoy a nordic ski break

Don’t get me wrong; We are in an era where everyone needs to be productive. Metrics dashboards, analytics, and our digital footprint all conspire to drive productivity and accountability. Few knowledge workers can hide from the productivity and outcomes expectations of their employers and clients. They can feel like they’re on the hook around the clock. This makes it all the more important to provide a release valve through flexible work arrangements. Giving the knowledge worker a greater sense of control of their lives is empowering, and as it turns out, more productive and rewarding.

Why send emails when you can send sick drops? Cory is seen midair on his bike in the woods.

A recent Harvard Business Review article cites a compelling London Business School study looking at work productivity during the COVID-19 lockdown. In it, researchers “learned that lockdown helps knowledge workers focus on the tasks that really matter. They spent 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners. People also selected their activities 50% more often after lockdown resulting in a greater feeling their work was more worthwhile.”

With our greatest fear not realized, and clear benefits emerging with the “new normal,” where does that leave us? Perhaps employees, managers, and business leaders can now be permitted to carve out time for their non-work life activities without the perceived shame of leaving money on the table? When our family, friends and favorite pastimes come calling, can we embrace that as a benefit and not shun it as a distraction? I sure hope so. It would be a waste of a good crisis to not learn this lesson.


Birkinshaw, J., Cohen, J., Stach, P. (August 31, 2020). “Research: Knowledge Workers Are More Productive from Home.” Harvard Business Review.

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