Founder and CEO Ollie Henderson believes the work/life balance is a myth.
Rather than seeing these as two opposing forces, he promotes an integrated approach that means they work in harmony. So, along came the work/life flywheel. We sat down with Ollie to hear his tips, tricks, and insights for getting into a state of life nirvana. ✌️
What is the purpose and impact of the work/life flywheel?
Over the past few years, we've experienced the greatest work/life revolution in history.
Never before have so many reconsidered the relationship between the time they spend at work and their personal life. While for most, this has been an opportunity to make positive changes, undoubtedly, challenges remain. Not least, how to navigate the increase in the time spent interacting through a screen. The lazy response to this challenge is typically to aspire for a better 'work/life balance'. The thing is, I don't know anyone – and bear in mind I interviewed 100s and surveyed 1000s for my book – who's ever achieved perfect 'work/life balance'? Not only is it impossible, it's not even desirable.
As I spoke to more and more successful people from the world of business and explored work/life design with leading experts in subjects as varied as psychology, sport, behavioural science, artificial intelligence, and the arts, a model emerged.
While no single story was the same, I kept spotting the same characteristics and patterns of behaviour among those who've successfully navigated career transitions and achieved success in business and life. They'd developed a positive and complementary relationship between their work and personal lives that allows them to keep one foot in the present and one in the future – a Work/Life Flywheel.
Rather than rely on a tired, impossible-to-achieve concept like balance, why not use language that reflects what most people are looking for – a feeling that they're making progress and building momentum, one step at a time?
How can someone begin to integrate both their work and life, especially when it's always been seen as so separate? I.e., what first steps can they take?
While most people seem to love new-found levels of freedom at work, flexibility creates new challenges. You might celebrate no longer having to commute to the office every day, but you probably also miss the connection you used to enjoy with seeing teammates in real life. Although you’ll enjoy being able to fit in a walk in the park or some exercise during your day, it’s not much fun when the trade-off is being expected to answer emails at crazy times.
So, while surveys report general happiness levels to be higher, there are also mounting problems with burnout, anxiety and loneliness.
Just take a look at Deloitte’s Women @ Work 2022 report for evidence.
- 53% of women say they’re more stressed than a year ago.
- 33% have had to take time off because of their mental health.
- 46% report being burnt out, which is the main reason for changing jobs.
- Women have been hardest hit by the expectation that with greater flexibility, you should achieve better ‘work/life balance’.
If only it were that simple.
After all, what does work/life balance actually mean?
And how do you achieve this magical state?
Over the past year, I’ve interviewed hundreds and surveyed thousands of business leaders and knowledge workers to understand better how they’re adapting to the new world of work. Striving for work/life balance is high on most people’s agenda, which makes sense, of course. It certainly sounds like something you should aspire for.
But what’s the reality?
I ran my digital advertising agency for ten years and particularly after adding kids to what was already a hectic work/life, I was constantly searching for ‘balance’. I never achieved it. Instead, I:
- Never felt like I could put enough time into my work.
- Never felt like I could put enough time into family life.
- Never felt like I could be anywhere close to achieving balance.
How was everyone managing it while I was failing? At least, that’s what I thought at the time. It turns out I wasn’t the only one. While it’s a metaphor used with well-meaning intentions, in reality, it represents something unattainable – a perfect equilibrium between the time you spend at work and the rest of your life.
But perfectly balancing work and life is impossible.
For a start, how do you even measure it? Maybe when you’re feeling unquestionably happy and fulfilled in both? Fair enough, but let’s be honest, those moments can feel fleeting for many of us. Plus, it can be challenging to pinpoint precisely what changes from one day to the next, as your perception of achieving ‘balance’ shifts.
That’s why we need to reframe the work/life conversation.
Your career and what’s happening in your personal life can’t be separated – they’re interdependent. You make progress by ensuring they work together in harmony. That doesn’t mean you should be available every hour of the day and night to take a call. Equally, it doesn’t mean there aren’t times when you want to prioritize hitting a deadline or working late to prepare for an important meeting. That’s ok.
As Ogilvy’s Vice-Chairman Rory Sutherland said about my new book, Work/Life Flywheel, “work and leisure have become a false dichotomy” when, in fact, “done right, each can make you better at the other.”
So, rather than trading work and life off against each other to achieve the ‘perfect balance’, let’s focus on improving how they work together to create something complementary and sustainable – a Work/Life Flywheel.
Why is this book perfect for today's work culture, and how can it change our approach to our careers?
While the first encounter many of us had with the emerging work revolution was a change in where we worked, we soon spotted the opportunity to rethink other dimensions of our work/lives.
- If we're no longer constrained to the office, how about we reconsider when and how we work too?
- Could we monetise our skills and experience outside a conventional 9–5 job and 'go it alone'?
The number of people moving into freelance careers has been on the rise since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, but since 2020 the rate of new company registrations in the UK and USA has accelerated. A new wave of entrepreneurship has emerged as so many have explored the benefits of becoming free agents for the first time. And yet, perhaps the most profound trend to emerge is a collective reassessment of our priorities in work and life.
As the COVID-19 pandemic put our lives on temporary hold, we started wondering:
- Why are we wasting time commuting to an office every day? Why are we spending so much time in meetings?
- Why the hell do we do what we do anyway?!
Alongside the pent-up demand that provoked what became known as the 'Great Resignation' in the second half of 2021, survey data consistently showed that purpose was now a vital consideration as candidates contemplated which company they should join. Among Generation Z – the youngest portion of working adults – in particular, whether or not their prospective employer's values aligned with theirs became more significant than the salary on offer.
The work revolution is empowering us to look for something more than just money and status.
What exactly do you mean by developing an experimental approach to your work/life?
While we recognise that the most innovative companies are those that experiment and are willing to fail often in the pursuit of making progress, we don't necessarily follow the same principle in our careers.
There are now various risk-free ways to take an experimental approach to our work/lives that give us a chance to discover new opportunities, whether pursuing our passions and curiosity or monetising our expertise.
This is one of the key lessons I've learned over the past few years. In January 2020, I'd never published online, had barely written aside from emails since I was at school, and had a serious aversion to networking. When I left the company I'd been running for the previous decade, I knew I needed to change various aspects of my work/life - one of which was being open to trying new things and sharing my ideas with the world.
Fast forward to today and I've
- Spent thousands of hours understanding what dynamics drive people's decision-making while undertaking an often scary-seeming career pivot.
- Interviewed world champion sports people, bestselling authors and visionary entrepreneurs across more than 100 episodes of my Top 10 Careers podcast, Future Work/Life.
- Launched a fast-growing newsletter, and grew a global community interested in the future of work.
- Gathered quantitative survey data from over 4,000 people and had countless one-to-one conversations with people reimagining their careers.
- Written an actual book!
With all of that have come new opportunities, yet none of them came particularly easy. It was just a case of consistently taking small steps.
When you look at how most successful (and fulfilled) people have done what they've done, it's through this approach.
Should people reach out to others for help and collaboration, in both their personal and professional lives?
The evidence is very clear that those with the strongest network achieve the greatest success in their careers.
Think about your personal life, particularly during challenging times, and it's not difficult to see how the same applies – the more trusted people you have to lean on, the better.
Look at the work side for a moment, and as I said before, I used to hate networking – Covid changed that for me because suddenly, it didn't mean making awkward introductions to strangers in a sterile conferencing room. Instead, it became an opportunity to share ideas with people online. Aware of my shortcomings when building connections, I made a conscious effort to interact with anyone whose work I was interested in. Quickly realising these conversations were worth capturing, I started the podcast, leading to dozens more new relationships and, ultimately, the book. As you can imagine, it's also led to various paid opportunities, whether job offers, speaking and advisory roles or proposals to collaborate on projects.
Evidence that what begins as an exercise in satisfying your curiosity can lead to something much greater – if you put yourself out there.
Plus, approaching it this way means you don't have to think about it transactionally. I'm not suggesting that we opportunistically build relationships only with people who serve specific aims. Instead, as Adam Grant describes in his book, Give and Take, the greatest opportunities often result from reciprocity – as much as we should be thinking about what someone can do for us, we should consider what we can do for them.
How can we create value?
Even framing the exercise like this can be useful if you're thinking about pivoting your career, as it's almost inevitable that, at times, you'll question whether your skills and experience are transferable. Here's a great chance to remind yourself why you're legendary!
What lessons from raising a young family can people take into the workplace?
My greatest revelation over the past couple of years is the acceptance that I don't need to trade work and family life against one another.
I spent years feeling like I neither spent enough time in the office nor at home. Like many people, I constantly felt guilty that I hadn't found balance. Now, I embrace total flexibility and design my work and life to work in harmony. Yes, that means taking time out to ensure I can pick the kids up from school when I need to and fitting in exercise and downtime to look after my physical and mental health, but it also goes the other way. If I wake up at 4 am to work or have a podcast recording at 7 pm with a guest on the West Coast, then I do it guilt-free.
The critical thing is that by building a system incorporating all aspects of the Work/Life Flywheel, I'm making progress at home and work, which means I can be at my best in both environments. I've not got it perfect, but I know I don't need to, which removes unnecessary pressure.
Who has been your favourite podcast guest?
I'm so lucky to have had some amazing guests on the show, and from a purely selfish perspective, it means I get to learn, one-on-one, from some of the world's leading experts!
But it's always pretty special when you meet people you've always looked up to and who have influenced your work, like Christopher Lochhead, Daniel Pink, Lynda Gratton and Tim Harford, all of whom I've followed for years. In each case, having the chance to write a list of questions I've always wanted to ask them was an incredible opportunity. That they've also since been really supportive of my work takes it to another level.
My advice – start a podcast and see what happens!
What did you edit out of this book?
I've written tens of thousands of words that didn't make it into the book. Not necessarily because I don't think they're valuable, but because I've learned through this experience that you've got to be clear about who you're writing for and what they expect.
While I've got plenty more to say about the future of work and growing businesses, people can read and hear that via my podcast and newsletter.
I've designed the book for people who want to make big changes in their careers. They might be considering pivoting into another industry or role, need a nudge to start pursuing a side project, or a framework for beginning to create online. When reading the book, they need practical advice and inspiration from people who've done what they'd like to do, framed realistically and focused on building a sustainable approach that helps them build momentum.
I hope that by giving readers the tools to build their Work/Life Flywheel, they have the motivation and system they need to achieve their potential in 2023 and beyond.
Pre order Ollie's book on Amazon, here! 👈