In the realm of employee experience and company culture, there’s no term more ubiquitous than work-life balance. It’s what every job candidate wants and every business promises. But in the years since work-life balance became a ubiquitous selling point, the workplace has changed drastically, and a new concept is starting to supplant work-life balance: work-life integration.

The pandemic and coinciding shifts to remote and hybrid work have spurred a deluge of new approaches to working. We recently covered the growing number of companies testing a four-day work week, a novel approach backed by research that supports a truncated work week as an enabler of productivity and employee wellbeing.

Now work-life integration is eclipsing work-life balance, and the term is popping up across industries. But what does it mean exactly—and should we be excited, or hesitant?

What is work-life integration?

Work-life integration refers to the idea of “blending” work responsibilities and personal responsibilities. Work-life balance enables employees to work for designated hours – typically 9 to 5 – and then leave work behind for their remaining personal hours. In this new model, work-life integration promotes a more fluid, flexible approach.

Unlike the four-day work week, this approach isn’t about letting employees work for fewer hours, more hours, etc. Instead, it emphasizes results: the focus is on outcomes and quality of work, not about when and for how long the work is being done.

Let’s say a marketing manager is a mother of two children and is also currently selling her house and moving to a new neighborhood. She’s been working from home since the pandemic – which means her work days are constantly interrupted: she looks after the kids, takes phone calls from her realtor, deals with movers, and so on. Work-life balance isn’t really possible for this employee, no matter what her employer promises.

But through work-life integration, her company would give her the tools and freedom to adequately juggle her home and work responsibilities. She may elect to block off time during traditional working hours so she can deal with things at home, open her laptop for a few hours after putting the kids to bed, etc. – and her schedule may vary drastically depending on the day.

Work-Life Balance vs. Work-Life Integration: What’s the Difference?

When seeking new hires, businesses advertise work-life balance as much or more-so than any other perk. And for good reason: a third of workers label work-life balance as the most important of all benefits.

However, as the above example illustrates, work-life balance doesn’t really reflect the reality of post-pandemic work. Sure, there are some workers who still log in at 9 a.m. and tuck their laptops in a drawer at 5 p.m. But more often, people are dealing with personal things throughout the day, checking emails while they relax in bed at night, and generally blending the personal and professional aspects of their lives.

That’s not to mention the dynamic nature of hybrid working – an employee who splits time between the office and home is going to have very different experiences and schedules depending on where they work on a given day.

This new reality has made the typical definition of “balance” nearly impossible to sustain, while increasing the importance of flexibility. In fact, a 2021 Gartner survey found that 43% of workers say that flexible working hours have helped them become more productive.

Rather than make empty promises to job candidates (or try to steer their workforces back to the old ways of doing things), companies must adapt to this new reality. In order to be successful, work-life integration must be a new form of “balance” – instead of promoting balance by respecting designated clock-in, clock-out times, they give employees the freedom to determine for themselves how they’ll balance their unique work and life responsibilities.

We’ll end with one caveat: businesses who aim to prioritize work-life integration need to do so tactfully. Even the phrase itself might turn off skeptical employees who imagine the concept as one that means they’ll always be on the clock. No employee wants a job in which they don’t know when work stops and life begins, and vice versa.

The goal of work-life integration isn’t to blur those lines to the point of confusion – it’s to empower employees to have more freedom over their schedules. The past few years have made flexibility a necessity rather than a benefit, so it only makes sense that business models are starting to reflect that shift.