work-life-balanceMay 15th is observed around the world as the International Day of Families. It’s been celebrated on that date since 1994, and grew out of the United Nations’ designation of that year as the International Year of Families. Twenty years later, focus on the family is becoming important to more and more people, but families today are not necessarily structured as they were decades ago.

The family is the world’s oldest social unit and forms the basis of our civilized societies. Even many animal species stay with their mates and offspring for many years or for life. In many ways, our families mold us into who were are, and provide a “safe haven” – physically and emotionally – from the dangers of the world. However, the stresses and strains of modern times have been rough on the family.

The traditional family unit a few centuries ago was more isolated and contained. Life revolved around the home; in an agrarian society, families spent their days tending to the farm, together. As populations concentrated in urban areas, that changed. Family members had to spend more and more time at workplaces away from the family in order to maintain an acceptable lifestyle and to get ahead in their careers. Focus shifted from home to career. It has become a challenge for families to maintain cohesiveness when busy schedules often make members feel like ships passing in the night.

The good news is that there signs this is changing, albeit slowly, for the better.  Many of today’s workers have moved back home, as telecommuters or entrepreneurs. And even if they still go to the office, members of today’s “reimagined” families – which may or may not consist of the once-standard husband, wife and 2.5 children – are finding ways to adapt and prevent the seemingly inevitable estrangement that has led to the breakup of so many families in recent times. There are undoubtedly a number of factors involved, but I believe a big reason for this new focus on the family is a relatively new concept in business referred to as “work/life balance.”

The term appeared in sociological literature in the 1970s and 80s, although the idea is much older. It wasn’t until more recently that corporate America began to embrace the model, at least in theory. In the 90s and 2000s, companies began to create employee programs to promote a healthier balance between work and leisure.

The technology industry was once known for its work-centric ethic, with programmers rivaled only by associates at high-powered law firms when it came to frequently pulling all-nighters to meet product deadlines. More recently, though, tech companies have been at the forefront in adopting this new paradigm.

Google, Nokia, Motorola and Intel were all on Forbes’ list of best companies for work/life balance last year.  IBM was an early investor in the “new world of work” that gives employees more control and flexibility. Microsoft takes work/life balance very seriously these days, to the point where many team leaders frown on their employees working on the weekend. A 2013 survey showed that 80 percent of respondents’ companies allow employees to telecommute some or part of the time.

Specific elements of corporate work/life balance programs include telecommuting, flex-time, part-time options, sabbaticals, more vacation and holiday time off, and the Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) that pays employees based on productivity rather than hours worked.

Companies aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’ve come to recognize that, based on the evidence, a healthier work/life balance makes for better and more productive employees. More time with the family leads to stronger family relationships, which reduces emotional turmoil that disrupts the ability to perform work at peak capacity.  But is it working? Are family members really spending more time together?

Interestingly, a Gallup survey at the end of last year showed that a majority of families routinely eat dinner together, and families are actively seeking more ways to connect. A survey from Pew Research showed that fathers are spending more than twice as much time doing housework as they did in the 1960s and have almost tripled the amount of time they spend with their children. However, the news isn’t all good. A survey conducted by a resort company found that, despite all these efforts and good intentions by companies and individuals, families are spending only an average of eight hours per week together.

Technology plays into our family relationships in interesting ways. The cartoon cliché shows the family at the dinner table ignoring one another, each absorbed in his/her cell phone or tablet. Psychologists express concern that family members may use TV or the Internet as an avoidance tool, to keep from dealing with family problems or talking about difficult issues, or even become addicted to their electronics to the point where the obsession takes the place of real relationships altogether.

On the other hand, modern technology can keep us in closer touch with our families than ever before. With smart phones and ubiquitous Internet connectivity, we can send a quick text or email when we wouldn’t take the time to call. We can find out what’s going on with our spouses or kids throughout the day by checking out their social network posts. We can even track one another’s locations through apps such as Foursquare or Life360. When my husband or I travel on business, we can use Skype or other video conferencing software to connect in a way that’s more like being there than a phone call.

Technology can also provide the impetus to get the conversational ball rolling when family members feel as if they have little in common. We can discuss news or current events that we read about on the Internet, or gossip about a mutual friend’s posts on Facebook, or plan weekend activities and vacations together online. Even video games can bring families together when enjoyed as a shared experience.

Certainly there’s truth in the adage that it’s the quality, not the quantity of time families spend together that counts – but does it have to be an either/or proposition? Maybe with today’s family-friendly corporate policies and technologies that make communication easier, we can manage to have a larger quantity of higher quality time with the ones we love. That would be the best of both worlds. At the very least, let’s all take a moment out of our busy days on May 15th to express our love and appreciation to those we call family, whether they’re biologically related to us or not.