Rebalancing 2020: mid-year review

Diary Calendar And Agenda For Planner To Plan Timetable,appointm

We’re at week 26: mid-way through the year and always a good time to review and adjust plans. In work-life balance terms it’s been an unprecedented year. After decades of workers asking for remote working; employers were finally forced to accede since lockdown meant they had few other options.

At the same time the risks of #AlwaysOn working increased as home and work lives meshed. Meshing also added to the mental load for many women when invisible caring responsibilities clashed with overt workplace demands.

Going forward, there seems to be a majority consensus that things will not be the same. The power to determine how different they become lies with all of us. But as they say “If you don’t know where you’re going you’re likely to end up somewhere else”.

This week let’s take the opportunity to pause, review and decide where we’re going with our work-life balance by answering three questions:

  1. Where have your work-life balance challenges increased?

For example, the media has been reporting that pressures on women have escalated as social expectations collided with workplace reality. The lack of access to childcare has resulted in an increase in guilt for many working mothers who’ve found it challenging to carry out either their parenting or workplace role satisfactorily.

Outdated gender stereotypes have apparently resurfaced in lockdown; with many men assuming their job takes priority over that of their wives. Coupled with a lack of clear performance goals this has resulted in large numbers of women struggling to find time for both work and family. Much of the guidance around how to be an efficient remote worker has been gender blind, failing to acknowledge that women shoulder much of the burden of unpaid (and generally invisible) care and household tasks.

On the work front many of us have struggled to become proficient in the technologies that facilitate remote working; and have ended up exhausted after endless video meetings (which typically require a deeper level of concentration than live interactions). And the risks of #AlwaysOn working have been exacerbated.

  1. Where has your work-life balance improved?

Conversely many of us have also seen benefits to the new ways of working. It could be the lack of commute (which eats into our time and often adds to our stress levels). Or the lack of distraction from co-workers. Perhaps you’ve learnt to schedule your time more effectively, or found joy in being able to spend more time with your partner and children.

  1. What small adjustments can you make going forward to regain your balance?

The past few months have been an opportunity for many of us to reconsider what’s important; and to reflect on the adjustments we can make to find better work-life balance.

What has lockdown taught you about your own preferences, what’s important for you and what needs to change now to rebalance as we embrace the ‘new normal’?

What small steps can you take this week to move forward into a balanced new future?

Flex your way to the top

Young Professional Gymnast Is Jumping In Nature Against The Blue

Research published this week suggests the vast majority of parents and carers do not want a return to previous working patterns once lockdown is lifted. They are looking for more flexibility going forward. The pandemic has shown us both the possibilities for new and improved working practices and the risks if employers fail to adopt these.

On closer reading it turns out it’s predominantly mothers in senior roles who want more flexible working. Mothers have risen to the challenge of combining caring with working from home. Those in junior roles are likely to find it easier to renegotiate flexibility for the future. Senior roles still present more of a challenge as prevailing workplace cultures get in the way.

For women in that senior group (or planning to move into it) I offer three suggestions for navigating the tricky combination of working flexibly while continuing to climb the career ladder.

  1. Clarify your ‘why’

If you’re juggling caring with a demanding career I’m guessing it’s because deep down you know you have so much to offer a world in chaos; and a desire to make your biggest contribution. Now more than ever the corporate world needs women in senior positions. Women have different life experiences and often adopt a more inclusive perspective when tackling problems; as Caroline Criado Perez demonstrates so eloquently.

Get very clear on the skills you offer and the bigger contribution you yearn to make. I’m not simply talking about the technical skills that make up your professional qualification or the jobs on your CV. I’m talking about the unique perspective you can bring to issues going forward as the world works to create more inclusive and more environmentally responsible economies. When you’re clear on what you contribute others are more likely to see your value.

  1. Avoid making it personal

Asking for a more flexible arrangement in a senior role is, in one sense, all about you and your needs. But on a bigger scale it’s also about pioneering new ways of working that enable better work-life balance for everyone. It’s about moving to working practices that create gender balanced organisations. Practices that have a broader benefit for working women; as well as for the generations to come. All change starts somewhere with someone. So, as the saying goes: be the change you want to see. Taking action towards a goal that’s bigger than your own needs makes it more compelling for others to buy into your plans.

  1. Safeguard your reputation

Just because it’s not all about you that doesn’t mean you should neglect your reputation. Working a non-standard arrangement at senior levels brings challenges. Make sure the outputs expected of you are realistic. Make sure people know about the contribution you are making, even though at times you may feel invisible. Become a loud and proud role model. In my experience woman are hungry for pioneers to show them the way.

Find a senior manager to be your mentor. And engage in some reverse mentoring too so that he (and it will probably be a he) understands the benefits and possibilities inherent in your working arrangement.

Wednesday is National Upcycling Day in the UK; so this is a great moment to think about #Upcycling Your Job. First, strip out what’s no longer working, then upgrade the rest to make it fit our 21st century lives. This week I encourage you to be creative and to ruthlessly challenge outmoded working practices as we continue our efforts to #rebalance 2020.


Essential foundations for the new normal workplace

The Worker Cleans And Levels The Sand Base With A Wooden Board F

We have the evidence that more people want ‘flexible’ working than are currently able to access it. We also know that for many people flexibility apparently lies in the possibility of working remotely and during non-standard hours. On the face of it,  lockdown has created these circumstances and demonstrated to employers this type of working arrangement is likely to succeed. Some pundits are already proclaiming a post pandemic ‘new normal’ where home working and flexible hours become more widespread. Others choose to disagree, suggesting employers have embraced homeworking as a temporary ‘necessary evil’ and will want a reversion to previous working arrangements as soon as permissible.

It’s an interesting debate that currently fills many pages of the internet; but it also misses the point. Extending current arrangements does little more than support #AlwaysOn working. It changes nothing.

Balanced new normal working arrangements are built on three new foundations.

  1. A rethink of inflexible job structures

There’s little point in flexibility about time and place if we retain existing inflexible job structures. Ones that contend jobs beyond a certain level in the hierarchy require long hours and the continuity of a single post holder. We’re increasingly accumulating evidence (and successful role models) to demonstrate that reduced hours in senior roles can be successful. That the ‘two heads are better than one’ benefits of job-share often outweigh slightly higher costs. And especially when it comes to increasing women’s representation in senior roles and reducing gender pay gaps, rethinking how we design work is an essential.

  1. Realigning HR practices

So many of our current HR policies are out of line with any attempts at balanced working. Employees who work from home often pay a penalty as a consequence of their lack of visibility with senior decision makers. They may be passed over when it comes to career defining assignments, or simply considered less committed in cultures that value long hours over productive outputs.

Even more enlightened HR policies such as those sanctioning reduced hours at senior levels are rarely supported with the requisite follow through. I’m tired of reading social media posts from women who’ve been allowed to reduce their hours with little or no guidance about how to reduce their workload accordingly.

  1. Tackling biased thinking

I rarely write about bias. It’s a tricky area. The jury is still out as to the effectiveness of the Unconscious Bias training that’s currently so popular in many workplaces. The evidence suggests that making people aware of their biases can be counterproductive. And when it comes to our quest for balanced working there are a number of biases that get in the way of women. Many are embedded in outmoded working practices and assumptions that working mothers must choose between a focus on family or one on work. As Stew Friedman has pointed out, professionals increasingly want to focus on getting the best out of both. Tackling many of these implicit biases requires open and honest conversations; rather than decisions based on unvoiced assumptions.

This week I encourage you to actively choose a new normal that supports balanced working by challenging outmoded assumptions and practices; and encouraging your employer to address these three essential foundations for a balanced workplace.

Asking questions to generate change

Questions And Answers Signpost

In last week’s blog I mentioned that the UK’s Equal Pay Act is fifty this year. While things have improved for women over the past half century there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. Specifically many workplaces continue with deeply embedded practices biased against all but those considered ‘ideal workers’. Outmoded ways of thinking continue to create career barriers. For women in particular the challenge is one of trying to adapt to workplaces designed ‘by men for men’. Across the globe women carry out three times as much unpaid domestic and caring work as men. Organisations, on the other hand, continue to operate on the notion that employees are unencumbered by outside responsibilities; or at least that work is always the priority.

This outmoded thinking manifests itself in a myriad of ways: a lack of access to flexible working truly designed to provide a balance between home and work; the increasing creep of work into non-work time as technology creates an #AlwaysOn culture; the assumption that senior roles can only be carried out successfully by one person working long hours; and so on. In the face of this ‘glass labyrinth’ it’s easy to become frustrated and wonder if things will ever be any different.

In my book I write about the power of Appreciative Inquiry to bring about change. When we use this approach (which is grounded in positive psychology) we start to ask questions about what’s going on in the organisation. It focuses the attention and has the power to initiate a change process.

I’m a great fan of questions as a tool for changing thinking.

When we challenge someone directly they might become defensive. But when we ask a question the mind is drawn towards finding an answer.

For example, a few years back I talked with a new mother who’d returned to work on reduced hours. As a senior manager, she was the only one of her colleagues working a non-standard arrangement. Her biggest challenge was the expectation that she would attend off-site overnight meetings which clashed with her desire to see her young child. She could simply have pointed out that overnight meetings were now inconvenient. But that would go against cultural expectations and stereotype her as a woman more concerned with family than career. Asking questions such as: how could we organise this meeting so none of us need be away overnight? And: what would be the benefit to people of not having to spend that much time away from home? on the other hand, is likely to elicit a different response from colleagues.

Asking questions allows us to assert ourselves in a non-threatening way while shining a spotlight on outmoded working practices. We’re able to bring about more gradual change, often without anyone noticing. And the barriers getting in the way of women’s progress become slowly eroded.

This week, as we continue our #rebalance journey, what outmoded corporate practices or ways of thinking are getting in the way of you having both a career and good work-life balance? What question can you ask that will begin to shift the thinking of your workplace colleagues? What are you waiting for?

In praise of the pioneers

Woman Equality Gender Rights Liberation

Across Europe the lockdown is beginning to ease. But that’s where the good news ends. As far as working women are concerned the rest is all doom and gloom. The general consensus is that in lockdown couples have reverted to stereotypical roles with women feeling pushed to prioritise caring and housework above their paid work. There’s also considerable speculation about the toll it’s taking on women; and how many might feel the need to downshift or abandon careers as we navigate our way out of the pandemic. As someone who’s worked for women’s equality in the workplace for a very long time it all feels very frustrating to me.

Today, in an effort to inspire every woman who reads this blog to keep going and not abandon her hard won career I wanted to share the stories of three amazing women that have pioneered workplace change.

My first heroine is Baroness Nancy Seear who was president of the Institute of Personnel Management from 1977-79. At that time I was graduating from university and starting my own career in personnel management. Baroness Seear had spent ten years as a Personnel Officer for a shoe manufacturer before taking up a post as teacher and reader in Personnel Management at the London School of Economics. She was at the LSE from 1946 to 1978 and a quick google scholar search shows her to have been a prolific researcher and writer on the thorny issue of women’s equality in the workplace. From 1970 to 1985 she was also president of the Fawcett Society.

While Nancy Seear spent many years shining a spotlight on workplace inequality my second heroine, the British Labour MP Barbara Castle, was able to make change happen. Baroness Castle was a member of Harold Wilson’s cabinet and Secretary of State for Employment from 1968 to 1970. It was during this period that she introduced the Equal Pay Act which is 50 years old this year.

She subsequently introduced further progressive reforms that benefitted women in the shape of the Invalid Care Allowance for single women and others giving up their jobs to care for a severely disabled relative; and the Child Benefit Act of 1975 which paid the benefit directly to mothers rather than fathers as had been the practice under the old system.

These two pioneers are no longer with us, but my third heroine is alive and kicking; and continues her philanthropic work. She is tech pioneer Stephanie (Steve) Shirley. Dame Shirley’s early career was spent in various computing roles. In 1962 she founded the software company Freelance Programmers. Having experienced workplace sexism she wanted to provide work for women with dependants. The majority of her workforce was female. I remember working with one of her employees from what was then F International in my early career long before I fully appreciated how revolutionary it was to offer flexible work to mothers in the tech industry. With such a great role model it’s ironic that the tech sector has been regressing in its support for women in more recent years.

Without these pioneering women we wouldn’t be where we are today. This week let their stories inspire you and remind you of how far women have progressed at work. Then think about the small steps you can take to pioneer a more balanced future not just for yourself and your family, but also for the generations of women that will follow you.

Ready to redesign your job?

Female Designer Working At Desk In Office And Illustration Of Co

In the UK we’re just entered month three of pandemic lockdown; and until restrictions are lifted and kids return to school we’re gradually adjusting to our ‘temporary new normal’. Two months in we can reflect on opportunities and challenges brought about by changing circumstances. A key thing for many of us has been the recognition that working from home in current conditions means adapting our previous working practices. We’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t. Now’s the time to consider redesigning your job.

In her Alec Rodger Memorial Lecture two years ago Professor Eva Demerouti identified four quadrants of jobs. There are those with low job demands and low resources, which lead to apathy; while those with low demands and high resources result in boredom. Many of us, however, are currently in the third quadrant where we face high demands with low resources; and we’re at risk of burnout. We must move ourselves to quadrant four where high demands are supported by high resources. This is where engagement, satisfaction and wellbeing reside.

Resources are all the things that make us feel more supported and more capable of doing our work. Some – such as external childcare – are currently not open to us; but others are still available. It may have taken us some time to recognise what resources we lack in the new landscape. It could be training on how to navigate technology more efficiently, better feedback from our manager or more support from colleagues. When we focus on making these adjustments for ourselves the small steps add up. A common approach is job crafting.

The concept of job crafting was developed by Professors Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E Dutton. It focuses on the proactive, bottom up approach employees take to adjust their jobs; and it has three aspects. The first, task crafting, is about changing the scope, number and type of tasks that make up a job. The second, relational crafting, is about making improvements by altering the balance of interactions with stakeholders. And the third, cognitive crafting is about reframing how we see those tasks and relationships. Research suggests the best results occur when people use all three together.

You can use the job crafting framework to identify and access more resources; and to reduce the physical and mental demands of your job. The focus is on working smarter rather than harder. Consider the following questions:

  • What are the key tasks I should focus on right now? The ones that will move my job and my employer’s business forward? What are the tasks that take up lots of time with little or no reward? Can I drop these (even if just for now)?
  • Where do I become frustrated in my interactions with others? How might I improve these interactions? Are there people who can help me progress my work more effectively: and am I making best use of their skills and knowledge?
  • How do I currently think about my job? Am I angry and resentful, simply trying to hold on until things improve when I might quit and find more satisfying work? Or am I seeing this as a learning experience and a stepping stone on the path to a more fulfilling career?

According to professor Demerouti job crafting activities rise during periods of change as people embrace the need to adapt. For those not willing to redesign their jobs there’s a higher risk of burnout. This week, take some time to jot down the small adjustments you can make that will lead to you feeling more in control.

To #rebalance 2020 are you ready to redesign you job?

Be assertive

A speedometer with needle pointing to the words You're in Contro

People who’ve mastered the art of assertive communication tend to get more of what they want or need. They possess a skill that helps them resolve matters when things go wrong. And they know that assertiveness works just as well with children and older family members as it does with workplace colleagues.

Communicating assertively means we’re behaving as adults; taking charge of our lives rather than feeling we are merely victims of circumstance. We’re also respecting the recipients of our communications as adults willing to hear our requests and support us; while we accept their response may be a ‘no’. Much of what I’ve been writing about in previous weeks – such as managing our boundaries and creating order in the chaos – depend on assertive communication.

Being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. We’re not demanding and we’re not coming from a place of feeling entitled. Nor is it the passivity of giving in to the demands of others and behaving like martyrs. We’re actively negotiating our own needs and desires while remaining mindful of the needs and desires of others.

As women we always run the risk of being labelled aggressive or difficult: especially when we’re being assertive. In my experience that type of criticism often comes from people who are not themselves behaving as adults and are not treating us as adults either; but are simply playing games.

Nevertheless, in the current circumstances it’s important to remember everyone is under pressure. An initial negative response may simply be a reflection of this. Someone reacts badly because our assertiveness appears to make their life harder. So we’ll need to negotiate.

Choosing to be assertive stops us feeling overwhelmed and can make us more productive. It will help calm our own emotions. It’s hard to focus when we’re feeling angry or frustrated; or that we’re not being heard and supported.

There’s plenty of advice about how to be assertive in person. Being assertive during telephone and video calls can pose more of a challenge. However, the basics remain the same. Tap into your self-confidence, relax, breathe and remain calm and alert. The more we do this, the more even our tone of voice and depth of pitch become. Both of which add to the ‘body language’ of assertiveness.

Remember to keep the conversation focused on your needs and feelings, not on berating the other person because of ‘how they make you feel’. Separate the individual from the behaviour and ask for changes to the latter. Above all, keep in mind that many of us are struggling. We want to do our best and we want to support each other. We may not always get it right but if we start with that basic assumption in mind we’ll succeed more often.

Let’s choose to be both assertive and kind. So we can support each other to rebalance our lives in these challenging times.

Career advice from George Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw

I’ve recently finished reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez which has powerfully reconnected me to my feminist roots. They go way back to the late 1970s when I was at university, living in the optimism that things would be better for my generation (and successive generations) of women. Despite increasingly focussed equality legislation progress since then has been at a snail’s pace. And with the advent of the pandemic I’m seeing more and more sexism everywhere.

My inbox and twitter feed are currently crammed with advice on how to manage flexible workers and flexible working. And all of it is gender blind. By which I mean it fails to acknowledge the huge differences between men’s and women’s circumstances. Women shoulder three times the burden for caring and household tasks. Advice such as making sure to take regular breaks from work is meaningless for women under unprecedented pressure to juggle work, childcare and home management. And the challenge of protecting our mental health becomes exacerbated as the mental load increases.

But men are stepping up; I hear some people argue. If only that were the case. Men believe they’re stepping up but, as the New York Times reported last week, they’re actually not. According to two US based surveys women continue to shoulder the burden of household duties while also carrying out the majority of home schooling. Men, on the other hand, report they’re helping more at home and covering the bulk of home schooling. The explanation for the discrepancy lies in the invisibility of women’s unpaid work.

So here’s some radical advice for women based on the words of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: be unreasonable.

Shaw said:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The history of women in the workplace has been one of them adapting to the working world. Now’s the time to be unreasonable and:

  • Make employers, partners and even older children aware of the extra burden that women have always carried and that’s getting heavier at this time;
  • Politely challenge gender blind employer guidelines on “how to be an efficient home worker” that assume work is our only focus;
  • Remain grounded in the knowledge that women bring value to the workplace simply by providing a differing perspective. That our paid work makes an equal and essential contribution.
  • Develop a vision of how better balance looks rather than compromise our own needs; and develop clarity around what that requires from both our employers and our family.

Yes, we run the risk of being called unreasonable. But then being reasonable hasn’t gotten us very far.

Our challenge is to create new working and living arrangements that are neither gender blind nor gender neutral; but that accommodate current differences between men’s and women’s lives. We must continue to press for progress. So that when the whole pandemic fiasco is over women are able to continue making their best contributions in all walks of life.

From Reactor to Creator

Close Up Of Old English Dictionary Page With Word Creator

The global response to the pandemic has been swift. The resulting lockdown – as I wrote last week – created a nightmare situation for many working parents. It’s just as well women have always excelled at fixing things behind the scenes: isn’t that what the mental load is all about?

And yet again women – working mums in particular – have stepped up. The evidence is compelling: news and research articles describing how women continue to shoulder much of the burden of care and household work in the ‘new normal’. And social media posts from women asking for tips on how to work and home school; how to negotiate with partners also working at home; and how to fit it all into 24 hours when sleep is a necessity.

In a crisis women respond. And in that same crisis they often find creative opportunities.

Now the talk is turning to what happens as restrictions are lifted. It’s time to turn our attention towards the future; and to creating a ‘new normal’ that suits us and our families better. Drawing on the experiences of the past few weeks here are a few small steps to take:

  • Reflect on whether your business case for flexible working has strengthened. The consensus is that the enforced move to home working demonstrated to employers that more jobs can be worked flexibly than they were ever willing to acknowledge.
  • Use this opportunity to negotiate the reduced hours arrangement you need. Given speculation that employers may need to cut jobs, this is an ideal way for yours to retain key skills. If you’re in a managerial or other senior role then job-share could be the way to proceed. It’s an easy one for employers to understand. And as they say: two heads are better than one. With planning the impact on employers is minimal and there are many intermediaries out there who can help set it up.
  • Ask your HR department whether the organisation has a stated Work Life Balance Policy; and whether guidelines exist on how to switch off from work. Research has shown only half of employers provide any formal advice on how to manage the information and communications technologies that increasingly push us to be always connected to work. Research has also shown this takes its toll on mothers who often work a triple shift and end up exhausted.
  • If your workplace has a Parents or Women’s network put improving work life balance on the agenda for the next meeting. Encourage people to share their recent experiences and reflect on how things can be improved to accommodate women’s unpaid (and often invisible) caring responsibilities.
  • Use this time to normalise conversations around work life balance. Most of us are currently in the same boat: juggling home and work in unprecedented ways. We’re being encouraged to acknowledge the challenges when interacting with colleagues. But the risk remains that once schools open and grandparents come out of lockdown those challenges will again fall off the radar of managers and employers. It’s essential we ensure that doesn’t happen or women will continue to be underrepresented at senior levels in the workplace.

The creative part of our brains has been given a boost as we’ve engaged in play with our children or reconnected with our cookery skills. Let’s harness that new found creativity to establish new ways to lean in on our own terms.

Staying centred

bigstock--Woman multitasking 131445305

Back in January when I started the theme of #rebalancing 2020 it was very much in the context of business as usual. My plan was to write about strategies for tackling issues such as the growing #AlwaysOn workplace culture; and the challenges of getting employers to agree flexible working at senior levels. Then lockdown happened. In its wake an increasing number of online blogs are praising the rapid shift to home working and predicting that post pandemic this will become the ‘new normal’. I disagree.

For many working parents (and mothers in particular) the current situation is not a golden age of flexible working but their worst nightmare come to pass.

It’s the fear that lurked in the minds of many. What if the whole juggling act falls apart? Suddenly it came to pass; and left many women feeling exhausted as the challenges of combining work and care became intensified. The consequential risk is that they’re pushed into making poor choices. Let me explain.

I spent the first couple of weeks of lockdown reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s a stark and well evidenced reminder of two indisputable facts. The first is that women carry out three quarters of the world’s unpaid caring work. Invisible work they juggle with outdated workplace requirements as they attempt to build careers. The second is the under-representation of women in all walks of life; including across all workplace sectors and levels. Which has huge negative implications for both their quality of life and for the global economy.

Right now, when the world needs more women’s voices, those voices may be lost. Women themselves are becoming tired of constantly fixing those things employers continue to ignore. Such as how to balance all that unpaid caring with inflexible working hours and equally inflexible expectations. On social media mothers are talking about giving up and finding more satisfying work that fits better with family life. Typically that requires lowering their sights and downshifting. If that’s you I urge you not to give up the career you’ve worked so hard to attain.

Indeed, the current crisis could turn out to be a golden opportunity. There’s talk about the likely need for employers to reduce staffing levels. If your job is on the line, now is the time to make a counter proposal and suggest you work reduced hours. Use my free workbook to craft a reduced load role that makes best use of your skills and keeps you in the game. What have you got to lose?

If you’ve been furloughed enjoy the time with your children making memories to keep and treasure. If you have some time to yourself why not spend part of it planning for better work-life balance once the crisis is over? You’re the woman I had in mind when I started writing this blog back in 2016 and there’s plenty of content here to help your journey.

And if you’re working from home and juggling childcare just take it one day at a time. Don’t let your thoughts about the future run away with you. Breathe. Cultivate a mindfulness practice.

Whatever your circumstances, stay centred and practice self-compassion. Now is not the moment for drastic changes. We’re all doing our best to navigate our way through uncertain times. And in that uncertainty lies the potential for new ways of working that bring both better work life balance and better gender balance. I’ll be writing more about that in next week’s blog.