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.

ReBalancing the chaos #1

Clock With Broken Glass On A White Background. Chaos Time. Time

The pandemic crisis has highlighted how precarious the work-life balance juggle is for so many of us. Mothers, in particular, face the triple whammy of trying to continue with paid work while looking after children and no longer able to rely on grandparents to pick up the slack. In these circumstances is any semblance of work-life balance possible?

My short answer is yes. A few simple shifts in your thinking and your working practices will enable better balance. It won’t be perfect – but then it never was. You will, however, notice an improvement.

In this week’s blog I’m focusing on two foundational strategies that will help #Rebalance the chaos.

  1. Redesign your job

Now, more than ever, it’s essential that you’re clear on the outputs expected of you and the timescales in which you must deliver these. For too long the focus, regardless of where the work was done, has been on the number of hours devoted to it rather than on the outputs produced. Time has suddenly become a scarce commodity and we need to be more mindful of how we use it.

It’s the perfect time to have that conversation with your manager. Your focus should be on how you can make the best use of those valuable skills for which you were hired. And how you can reduce the low value activities (such as endless meetings and emails) that get in the way of your productivity by eating away at your time. It’s also the moment to accept that your work routine and your availability for work are both going to deviate from the standard 9:00 to 18:00 in the office. So long as you meet agreed deadlines, when you choose to work should be irrelevant.

  1. Keep ‘multi-tasking’ to a minimum

Researchers categorise work-life balance strategies along a continuum from Separation at one end to Integration at the other. Since the turn of the century technology had been pushing more and more of us to be Integrators – leading to an #AlwaysOn working culture and the risk of burnout.

Integrators appear to be more comfortable blending their work and non-work activities; and in the current circumstances many people have little option to do otherwise. However, integration, also often referred to as multi-tasking – has its limitations.

Indeed multi-tasking has been shown to be a myth. What we’re actually doing is switching between tasks and the mental effort of doing so makes us less productive. Trying to multi-task work with caring for a young child can be almost impossible. If you’re in that position and living in a two parent household it’s better to agree boundaried periods when each of you can work while sharing childcare and household tasks. Lone parents face a much bigger challenge; and may need to lower their work-based expectations in the short term.

In the second part of this blog next week I’ll be looking at how to avoid role confusion; and how to use positive psychology to get what you need.

The internet is currently full of coaches and motivational speakers encouraging us to make use of these unusual circumstances to learn new skills and develop new habits. For many of us that can seem like adding more to the current chaos of our lives. Following my suggestions, on the other hand, will lead you (almost) effortlessly to new skills and habits that will serve you in good stead when the current crisis is over.

 

Working from home

Text Sign Showing Home Sweet Home. Conceptual Photo In House Fin

One optimistic notion emerging from the current global pandemic crisis is that employer attitudes to homeworking will shift permanently as a result. I’m tempted to share this optimism but years of experience suggest that once the panic is over it’s more likely that many employers will breathe a sigh of relief; then order everyone back to the office claiming that while homeworking was great in addressing the emergency it’s not feasible as a permanent arrangement.

In order to convince employers otherwise it’s essential we demonstrate how successful working from home has been. So here are my tips for ensuring homeworking is a success for you; and provides your employer with the confidence to allow the arrangement to continue once the current panic is over.

  1. Ensure you and your team are very clear on what outputs are expected and in what timescales.
  2. Don’t get too hung up on exactly when the work is being carried out; but do ensure you have agreed deadlines – especially where the work of one team member depends on the outputs of another.
  3. Make sure everyone understands and is capable of using the technology. In the office it’s easy to ask a co-worker how to do something, less so when working remotely. If some of your team are less experienced consider buddying them up with another team member that has more technical expertise.
  4. Agee touch points during the day and week when you will make contact – either with individuals or as a team. And agree some core times when people can be contacted. This will overcome the frustration of not being able to reach someone; and the lack of trust that can arise. Remember that even in the office people can be away from their desks.
  5. If you move meetings online aim to keep them short. Attention spans are more likely to be reduced when just sitting and listening; and you cannot always tell if someone is engaged or distracted and multi-tasking.
  6. If you’re chairing the meeting; or indeed even catching up with individual members of staff by phone work to improve your listening skills. You may hear concern or hesitation in someone’s voice even if you cannot see their face.
  7. Remember to take regular breaks. Without office based interruptions work can become intensified.
  8. Look after your physical health. Hours spent crouched over a laptop in the kitchen or dining room can lead to musculoskeletal problems. Check your employer’s Health &Safety guidelines, stretch occasionally and walk around.
  9. Establish and protect your boundaries. It’s easy when working from home to get distracted. It’s also easy for others to assume you’re free to be interrupted. Make sure people know when you’re working and when they can interact with you.
  10. If you’re interested in upgrading your remote working skills check out the e-worklife site. Hosted by Coventry University it provides evidence based information and support.

Above all stay safe and remain mindful of more vulnerable members of your community. Enforced home working was not the way I saw us #rebalancing in 2020 but it does provide us with an opportunity to reconsider the way we live and work.

Ten tips for negotiating a flexible schedule

Funny Baby Girl In Glasses Reading A Book In A Library

Throughout February I’ve been focusing on various aspects of flexible working since it’s a key tool for many in their search for better balance. One of the most complex aspects seems to be negotiating a flexible schedule that suits both you and your employer. In this post as the month closes I’m sharing ten tips for success.

  1. Be very clear on your business case from the outset. Spend some time thinking about the tangible (i.e. costs and time) benefits and the less tangible ones (e.g. improved productivity when you’re living a more balanced life).
  2. Identify the flexible arrangement that’s most suitable for your needs and the type of job you have. If you need help to do this you can download my free workbook. Aim for some flexibility in your thinking rather than being rigid in your requirements from the outset (I recognise this can be difficult if external childcare arrangements are involved). This will give you some ‘wiggle room’ if your manager rejects your initial request as unworkable.
  3. But don’t fall into the trap of being too flexible in your efforts to show how grateful you are that your request has been granted. Without boundaries around your flexible working agreement you risk finding yourself always available for work while your new arrangement slowly erodes beneath you.
  4. Do some research before you start negotiating. In most organisations there’s plenty going on under the radar. Identifying allies who can support you in your quest for flexibility and role models who are pioneering change will make you confident you have a strong case.
  5. Focus on the positive. Your initial request may be met with a negative response. It’s easy to get defensive and the situation quickly spirals downwards. Instead ask positive questions that help you and your manager explore possibilities. What would balanced working look like? Not just for you but also for your entire team and your manager. What would need to happen for that to become a reality?
  6. Keep in mind that any negotiation is a series of small steps. Gradual change with minimal impact on the lives of those around you is easier to implement. Small steps stop you feeling overwhelmed; and mean you can make adjustments as you go along – so you’re always course correcting towards success.
  7. Recognise it’s down to you. The combination of your job role and your life circumstances makes your situation unique. So you’ll have to take charge, figure out what you need, connect with your power and find the confidence to go for it.
  8. Recognise you’re likely to be a pioneer – which may bring up challenges for you. If you’ve lined up those role models and champions; and if you’re clear on your business case you’ll find more confidence to step into this leadership role.
  9. Trust yourself. You’ve got this. You’re a better negotiator than you think you are. Relax, be more playfuland explore the options open to you. Finding balance is a journey not a destination.
  10. Good luck – you’re ready to go. And if you find you need further support from me check out my new VIP day coaching offer.

I trust you’ll find these steps a useful summary. I’ll be writing more on some of these topics in the coming months as we continue our journey to #rebalance 2020.

#AlwaysOn is NOT flexible working

Outdoor Electricity Switch Used To Turn On Or Turn Off The Outsi

The same technologies that have enabled people to combine work with caring responsibilities are increasingly blurring the boundaries between the two – with negative consequences for our health and well-being.

There was a time – although it’s hard to remember now – when we had a clear separation between work and other aspects of our lives. Towards the end of the last century things began to change as employers increasingly offered ‘flexible working’ schedules. Initially driven by family friendly policies, flexible working is still seen as the panacea for parents who want to combine work with family. As more and more mothers return from maternity leave the demand for flexible schedules continues to rise. At the same time many employers are re-branding their arrangements as agile – allowing work to be carried out any time, any where.

In reality many of us are feeling pushed to work all the time and everywhere. This is leading to the growth of an #AlwaysOn culture and the consequent negative impact on well-being. Mothers in particular are often so grateful for the ‘concession’ of being able to work flexibly they routinely blur their boundaries. It’s their way of showing commitment to career while trying to meet the high standards demanded of them as parents. The result – as Dr Christine Grant has found – is women exhausted by the triple shift of work then childcare followed by more work once children are asleep. A further risk – identified by Professor Ellen Ernst Kossek – is that blurred boundaries can lead to ‘job creep’ resulting in overwork. As we all know work expands to fill the hours we devote to it!

My point here is to remind you that #AlwaysOn working is not balanced working and should not be confused with well managed flexible working.

How do we make sure our flexible arrangement results in balanced working?

I’ve already written about boundaries earlier this year since boundary management is – in the words of Professor Ernst Kossek – an essential competency for personal and life effectiveness. As an aside, she maintains that effectively managing boundaries not only improves your work-life balance but can also help you be more effective as a leader who manages others.

While the way we set and manage boundaries comes down to personal preference, making a start by putting in some micro-boundaries is likely to improve most people’s work-life balance. Creating those micro-boundaries is down to you. Research has shown that less than half of UK workplaces offer employees any guidance on managing #AlwaysOn technology; and even fewer have a work-life balance policy.

Maintaining boundaries requires mindfulness and self-responsibility. It’s all too easy to fall prey to workplace cultural expectations that say we must always be available to colleagues. And, of course, there are our own expectations that we must be seen to be ‘flexible’ (i.e. always responsive) as our part of the employment bargain. Getting into this frame of mind risks compromising our health and well-being, as well as our relationships with the important people in our lives.

As we work to #rebalance in 2020, let’s drop the guilt and cultivate a belief that to be our best selves and do our best work we’re entitled to a balanced life.

Work-life conflict or work-life enrichment?

Week 4 conflict or enrichment

Becoming a parent changes our perceptions of ourselves. A new responsibility has been thrust upon us; and for mothers in particular it often seems that this is at odds with the requirements of their career. In my book I write about ‘man made’ workplaces: cultures and practices established over half a century ago when the ideal worker was a man able to focus solely on work while his non-working wife provided support.

Despite changing social expectations and the fact that the majority of women now also work outside the home this ‘man made’ culture is still prevalent in many workplaces. The result is what researchers have termed ‘work-life conflict’ which happens for a number of reasons. For example, a woman returning from maternity leave may find that cultural expectations of what it means to be professional are at odds with her new role as a mother. We can’t simply drop childcare (or for that matter elder or other family care) at the front door when we enter our workplace.

As we find ourselves living and working in an increasingly #AlwaysOn culture we also find that work is more likely than ever to interrupt our non-work time (and vice versa). Where should our priorities lie? And how do we set them?

The opposite of work-life conflict is work-life enrichment. It’s the upside of being a working parent. Our working life enriches our parental experience and we often find that skills we learn as parents (such as the ability to negotiate or set boundaries) serve us well in the workplace. The secret lies in making small adjustments that increase enrichment and reduce conflict. We can do this by reconsidering how we play our parental and employee roles; by identifying where those old expectations came from and by asking ourselves whether they are helpful to us.

Research has shown that focusing on how the two parts of our life can enrich each other can make us feel better than when we consider work and life to be in conflict. To increase that feeling of enrichment consider taking some of the following actions:

  1. Set and maintain your boundaries. You’ll be more present to the people in your life – both at home and at work – and feel better as a result;
  2. Remind yourself that as a working mother you’re setting an example to your children of what’s possible for women. (We are, after all, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century!);
  3. Talk to your children about the work you do. Share both the upsides and the downsides. You’ll be making a start on preparing them for later life when they begin thinking about careers;
  4. Share your experiences (and best tips) with other parents in your workplace who are at an earlier point on the journey. In my experience most mothers value role models who’ve ‘been there and done that’.

Finding ways to combine the positive aspects of both roles is more likely to leave us feeling that our lives are enriched.

For many people a key factor in finding that balance is working flexibly. This is such an important factor in reducing work-life conflict that I plan to focus on it in upcoming blogs during the month of February. Stay with me on the journey.

Why you need better boundaries

String Of Blue And White Buoys On Calm Lake Waters.  Used As Bou

Last week I set the scene for why #rebalancing work and life is so important. This week we start looking at how to achieve that by considering why we need better boundaries.

When work life balance researchers talk about boundaries they are talking about the interplay between work and other aspects of life. Understanding and managing these boundaries is the linchpin to finding the balance that suits us, so I wanted to tackle the subject early on in our year of #rebalancing work and life.

Fifty years ago work and non-work lives were typically kept separate; and it was generally easy for us to do so. Work was carried out in the workplace and left behind when the working day was finished. Some people still prefer this approach; they are known as Separators.

For the majority of us, however, developments in technology and working practices have resulted in work becoming increasingly integrated with other aspects of our lives. Some people prefer to work this way (unsurprisingly they are known as Integrators).

Our reasons for integrating may be personal: we want to accommodate client needs; or to carve out time in the middle of our work to deal with aspects of our personal life. Alternatively our reasons may be driven by the expectations of others. For example, the long hours culture in our workplace may drive us to continue working once we get home.

As I explain in my book, integration at its extreme is bad for us since:

  • We find we can never switch off from work pressures;
  • Our attention is constantly pulled in several directions. We’re never fully present to the people we’re with or the tasks we’re doing;
  • Research evidence is confirming that ‘multitasking’ is both a myth and an inefficient way of working.

Professor Anna Cox studies human-computer interaction and its impact on work-life balance. She recommends the use of microboundaries.

Microboundaries are strategies we can put in place to limit the negative effects of boundary cross-overs – such as receiving a work email at the weekend – so that we feel more in control.

Professor Cox suggests a range of actions such as separating work and personal emails/apps; consciously deciding when not to carry a smartphone; disabling notifications when socialising or turning on night mode at bedtime.

This week I urge you to spend a few minutes thinking about where you can carve out better boundaries for yourself. It might be resolving to switch your mobile off for the hour you have dinner with your family; or taking time on your commute home to divest yourself of work pressures and prepare to be mentally present at home.

Life will always present us with emergencies but these are – thankfully – rare. For the rest of the time setting and maintaining our boundaries will both make us more effective and enable us to lead a richer life.

If you take no other actions to #rebalance your work and life this year; resolve to set better boundaries and to maintain them.

 

Being your best self

A Woman Looks In The Direction Of Her Black And White Reflection

Just today another email dropped into my inbox from a renowned female coach urging me to play bigger. It’s a message that’s constantly being thrown at women; as if we’re somehow shrinking from our potential or perhaps not being assertive enough in our lives. The thing is: if we’re juggling the caring load with a challenging career (and probably several other things as well) ‘playing bigger can seem both daunting and exhausting.

What if there was an easier way? One that appears smaller but is likely to be more powerful – leading us to feel we’re fulfilling on our potential?

There is: and it’s the art of being our best self. The temptation is to rattle through crazy busy lives on autopilot, doing the minimum to get by. What if we paused, reflected and chose to hold a deeper vision of who we are. Everything would begin to change. Psychologists sometimes talk about ‘possible future selves’ – the people we might choose to become. But the reality is we also have possible current selves – who we choose to be in the moment.

Being your best self is an exercise in mindfulness and it’s built on forging a deep connection to our spiritual core. Then, at any moment and in any challenge, we can stop and ask ourselves: “what’s the best action I can take right now?” I’m not talking about getting more strategic, but about becoming more authentic; acting with more integrity. How would your best self react in this situation?

When we go through life mindfully we begin to find more balance. It becomes easier to identify when to act and when to let things go. We grow more confident in our sense of worthiness. We begin to understand that we cannot be our best self when we’re lacking focus and feeling pulled in a thousand different directions.

Our best self recognises that in order to thrive we need to assert our needs, to ask for support, set boundaries and hold others to account. As we commit to being our best selves, we not only hold that vision, but we extend it to the people around us – creating a space for them also to be their best selves.

That way we do more than simply #upcycle our jobs. We #upcycle ourselves as we grow into the best version of ourselves.

And when we do we might just find we’re playing bigger.

Better balance in 2019

Graphic - 3 principles

The days leading up to the start of a new year are traditionally the time to set resolutions that will in some way improve our lives. And in 2019 resolving to improve our work-life balance is more essential than ever before.

Recent research conducted by my colleagues from the Work-Life Balance working group revealed that as the UK battles the inexorable trend towards an #AlwaysOn workplace culture less than half of employers have a work life balance policy or provide any guidelines on switching off from technology. So it seems that if we want better balance we’ll need to take control of it ourselves. My new book – which walks you through the process of developing your own balanced arrangement – will not be published until the spring. In the meantime here are three simple principles that will support you in having a more balanced life in 2019.

  1. Know where to draw the line. That’s the boundary line between work and the rest of your life. Traditionally work-life balance researchers have grouped people into separators who like to keep work separate from the rest of their lives; and integrators who prefer to combine the two. In reality it’s two ends of a continuum. So while modern life increasingly demands integration a degree of separation can aid recovery from life’s stresses and lead to improved well-being. That might mean deciding to have one ‘non-work’ day at the weekend to devote to family; or perhaps agreeing not to check emails and text messages for a couple of hours around family mealtimes. Uninterrupted time with loved ones enables us to be more fully present so we enjoy their company and connect more deeply.

What would suit you? Choose where you draw the line – and resolve to stick to it in 2019.

  1. Re-write the rules. I’m talking about the rules which govern the way we play the key roles of parent and worker. Everybody has their own opinion of what makes a good mother or father; of what it means to be a professional; of what makes a dedicated and ambitious employee. You’ll never meet the sum total of those expectations – so set your own instead. What will make you feel you’re doing a good job as a parent? Your children’s needs will change as they grow and mature. And there will come a point when they will fly the nest altogether: which will give you more scope to focus on other aspects of your life such as work. In the meantime what will make you feel you’re keeping control of your career? Do you want to work less hours? Or simply have the flexibility to work around family needs?

Again, the choice is yours. Set your own markers of success and ignore the judgements of others.

  1. Work intelligently. Whatever your current workload there’s always scope for reducing the amount of time you devote to low value activities. Can you automate or even eliminate these? For example, a coaching client of mine faced a daily mountain of emails from people who saw her as the quickest route to resolving their workplace issues. Then she got involved in a high priority project which meant letting her emailers know she would not be responding for a fortnight. At the end of that period her email load had reduced by almost 80% as people found ways of resolving their dilemmas elsewhere. As a consequence she found she had more time to focus on the high value elements of her job without the constant email interruptions.

So what are the high value tasks in your work? What’s getting in the way of you doing them? And how can you reduce or eliminate those obstacles?

Three simple principles that can be implemented in small steps; and will lead to better balance in 2019.

Artificial Intelligence – our unlikely ally

bigstock-workplace robot -188352367

When it comes to finding better balance in our working lives it transpires Artificial Intelligence could be our ally. For some time the doomsters have been predicting widespread job losses as technology takes over, but according to a new book published by Harvard Business Review the reality is more nuanced.

I recently attended the London launch of a new book that explains how automation will reinvent rather than eradicate jobs. Co-author Ravin Jesuthasan introduced a four stage approach to recreating jobs with the aid of Artificial Intelligence. It starts with deconstructing the job to identify tasks best suited to automation; then identifying the automation payoff and what automation is possible; and finally reconstructing the job to create the best human-automation combination.

It’s a great book, thoroughly researched and well worth reading. For those of us looking for more balance in our work it also offers a new tool to help bring that about. According to the authors tasks which are repetitive, carried out alone and requiring physical rather than mental energy are best suited to automation. Which leaves humans to do more of what they do well: use their creativity – often in collaboration with others. Eliminating low value, routine tasks which can be automated is something I’ve been advocating for years. It’s particularly important if we want to work less than full time.

As I see it there are quantifiable benefits to automation:

  • It can eliminate all those routine, low value tasks that eat into our working day. For example – as I recently speculated on LinkedIn – imagine an algorithm that could work out which of those emails in your inbox was really necessary and somehow eliminate the rest. So that even if you feel the need to check emails out of hours you would be confident those emails were important. Or a readily accessible and easy to navigate knowledge bank where your co-workers could find the answers to simple questions rather than interrupting your precious non-work time.
  • Reducing the average email load may also reduce the temptation to work during our commute. That would both provide us with recovery time and help us create better boundaries between our work and non-work lives. And removing the constant distraction of low value activities could result in us having more focus while working fewer hours – so we become more productive.

We must also be aware of potential pitfalls. For example:

  • Higher value creative tasks tend to be more open-ended; and since human beings don’t switch creativity on and off it might actually become more difficult to separate work and non-work lives.
  • Working collaboratively in a global environment could result in team members being at the mercy of other people’s timings and preferred ways of working. Managing the challenges elegantly will require both better collaboration skills and better self-management.
  • Deconstructing and recreating jobs without a specific focus on human well-being could simply result in jobs that are more stressful. And job redesign – while it does open up new possibilities as the book authors demonstrate – will not, in itself, change outdated workplace cultures that emphasize long hours and presenteeism.

As human beings we can choose how technology will support us to create a better working future. We currently appear to be making some very poor choices given our increasing propensity to be #AlwaysOn. But we can be more mindful, making better choices that create better working lives. And in doing so we find Artificial Intelligence has become our unlikely ally.