Finding your work-life fit

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Finding your work-life fit

To integrate work, family, and everything else, “puzzle pieces” offers better metaphor than perfect “balance”

by Kate Weisshaar on Thursday, May 2, 2013 - 7:33am

image of puzzleWhat do working parents, graduate students, and baseball fans have in common? We share a common aim to improve the fit between work or school and everything else: extracurricular activities, family life, friendships, and personal hobbies. This is easier said than done. In this busy world, there are always competing demands for time.

For the past 20 years, this challenge of juggling personal and professional demands has typically been dubbed “work-life balance.” Instead, Phyllis Stewart Pires, Director of WorkLife Strategy at Stanford and a member of the Clayman Institute's working group on Redefining and Redesigning Work, calls this dynamic a jigsaw puzzle.

Stewart Pires, who spoke recently at the Stanford Women’s Community Center, cautions that the word “balance” implies a “harmonic convergence of work and life.” She explains that this end result is practically impossible to achieve. Instead, Stewart Pires recommends viewing life as a collection of puzzle pieces, consisting of work, family, and other activities. Instead of trying to achieve a perfect balance, she advises the process would be easier and less stressful if we instead thought about how to integrate the metaphorical puzzle pieces of our lives.

For the past 20 years, the challenge of juggling personal and professional demands has been dubbed “work-life balance.” Instead, Phyllis Stewart Pires calls this dynamic a jigsaw puzzle.

Stewart Pires has ample personal experience juggling work and family. She has three children and has spent years in corporate and educational settings, including as vice president at SAP, as an executive at Cisco, and now in her role at Stanford. She has also spent time designing childcare facilities for companies and working to manage workplaces for employees with families.

Reflecting on her own work-life puzzle, Pires observes, “Some days those pieces fit together really nicely. And [on these days] when I go to bed at the end of the day, I say to myself, ‘That felt like a day that I’d like to have again.’ And then there are days when I go to bed thinking, ‘That feels a little out of whack.’”

Pires says the best we can do is to maximize the number of days during which the puzzle pieces fit. She offers several strategies for making the fragments of life come together. 

Strategies for work-life engagement

“Balancing” work and family is generally considered an issue for parents, especially women. However, when conceived more broadly as balancing work and other activities, it becomes clear that this is a problem faced by non-parents and parents alike.

While it is true that mothers, even those with high-status careers, face pressure to focus on family and childcare, fathers as well as non-parents face similar dilemmas. In a 2012 survey, about 50 percent of fathers reported that their jobs interfered with family life. Childless men and women also have non-work activities that are important to their lives.

Inevitably, men and women must make decisions about how to allocate their time. Stewart Pires recommends three main strategies: First, establish work and life goals. Second, create and maintain your community of support. Third, remember that life is messy; don’t set perfection as the goal.

To strike better balance, set goals

Establishing work and life goals – not just career plans – is a first step. Stewart Pires feels that it's important to have hands-on involvement in her children’s schools, so she plans time for this in her schedule.

Creating goals in your career means you need to know what is measured and valued at work. Are you assessed based on how much time you spend in the office, or by project outcomes? Knowing the metric of assessment will help you develop concrete career plans, which can help you assess how to allocate your work time, Stewart Pires explains.

Finding equilibrium is all about community

image of kids at BingNext, Stewart Pires recommends finding and maintaining a reliable support community. Identify people you can learn from and depend on in times of need. Whether comprised of family, friends, neighbors, or mentors, your support network can help you in assembling your work-life puzzle. For example, building relationships with your neighbors can be helpful if you unexpectedly need childcare one afternoon.

Additionally, Stewart Pires recommends working with your partner to align your goals. What does he or she expect from you? Do these expectations align with your expectations? Are you and your partner both willing to compromise or adjust based on each other’s career and life challenges? If you’re able to openly agree on expectations ahead of time, it will likely reduce some of the hassle of coordinating later.

In integrating life and work, forget about perfection

Life is messy, so striving for perfection is unrealistic. Surprises are frequent in all realms of life. When you’re confronted with an unexpected decision, make sure to ask yourself critical questions and take your time in making decisions. Stewart Pires recommends willingness to move beyond your comfort zone while likewise recognizing warning signs of becoming over-stressed. For example, try out a new strategy for integrating work and family life, and then assess whether you’ve gotten closer to your work-life goals or whether you’ve pushed yourself too far. One idea Stewart Pires suggests is conducting six-month check-ins: How did the last six months go? What needs to change?

Life is messy, so striving for perfection is unrealistic.

How employers can help

Employers can offer a range of approaches to help workers fit the pieces together. For example, on-site childcare is a very helpful arrangement for working parents and can help reduce time and stress in parents’ lives. Furthermore, it can also benefit employers: a 1995 survey found that 37 percent of companies with on-site childcare have less turnover, and 54 percent have decreased absenteeism from their employees. At Stanford, there are seven childcare facilities serving several hundred families. Stewart Pires worked to establish on-site childcare facilities at companies like Cisco. 

Allowing workers the option of flexible work arrangements such as working from home or setting their own hours is another important way that employers can help improve their employees’ lives. Studies have shown that flexible work arrangements can make employees more productive, so it’s a win-win idea.

Navigating work and life is a continual challenge but one that can be made easier. The first step may be reframing the dilemma from an issue of perfect “work-life balance” to one of connecting the puzzle pieces of life. The pieces may not click into place at first. Stewart Pires suggests setting tangible goals, tapping into a supportive community, and forgetting about unrealistic conceptions of perfection.



  • Work-life balance is not just for women: 50 percent of fathers reported that their job interfered with family life
  • 37 percent of companies with on-site childcare report lower turnover; 54 percent have decreased absenteeism from their employees


Phyllis Stewart Pires's presentation, "Balancing Career with Everything Else," was part of the 2013 Women at Work series sponsored by the Women's Community Center and co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Stanford's WorkLife Office is open to students, faculty, and staff. It provides programs like onsite childcare, financial assistance, education for navigating work-life, and active aging and eldercare resources.


More Gender News:

Stewart PiresPhyllis Stewart Pires is the director of WorkLife Strategy at Stanford. Prior to this position, Pires served as a vice president of diversity at SAP and a senior HR manager at Cisco. Her career goal is to make workplaces better for parents and for employees with families. Stewart Pires is a member of the Redesigning Redefining Work initiative at the Clayman Institute.

WeisshaarKate Weisshaar is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Sociology Department at Stanford. Her research focuses on gender, family, and economic inequality. She is a member of the Clayman Institute’s Student Writing Team.