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.
A fundamental principle of maintaining good work-life balance is finding time for recovery. After a sustained period of hard work we need to switch off and do something that moves our attention elsewhere. For me that something is yoga. I’ve been doing it for the past fifteen years. Yoga undoubtedly benefits both my physical and mental health; and in addition I’m increasingly finding that lessons I learn ‘on the mat’ can be applied to my life ‘off the mat’.
Today I’m sharing three of those lessons that will support your Balanced Leader journey:
Balance is dynamic. It requires moment by moment adjustments. If you practice yoga balancing poses are inevitable. When we first attempt them we discover that balance is not static. As we stand in tree pose (for example) our body oscillates and our muscles make tiny movements. That’s the way bodies are designed to work. Similarly in our lives balance is never a static ‘one and done’. Life conspires to throw things at us that will push us out of balance; and we must remain vigilant so we can make adjustments. At times these will be minor – such as when we notice more and more work-related texts or emails encroaching on the rest of our lives; and we choose to renegotiate our boundaries. At others a major life event – such as the birth of a child or the sudden illness of a family member – will force us to make bigger adjustments.
Balance calls for dedicated focus. If you’ve ever attempted a balancing pose in class and noticed your neighbours wobble you’ll know how easy it is to lose concentration and find you’re also starting to wobble. To avoid this yoga teachers often recommend we keep our gaze focused towards a ‘drishti point’. As we do our mind quietens, we connect with ourselves and we find it’s easier to remain balanced. When it comes to balancing your life where is your focus? What is your ‘drishti point’? The more we keep our attention on the balance we want in our lives, the more likely we are to find it.
Balance becomes easier the more we practice. Half Moon pose is one of my favourites. You balance on one arm and one leg while raising the other leg and arm high. Despite a perfect demonstration by my teacher, it seemed almost impossible to me when I first attempted it myself. Gradually, as my body has become stronger and I’ve learnt how to make the necessary adjustments, I’m able to hold the pose for longer periods of time. The same approach applies to finding balance in your life: the more you practice, the more skilled you become and the easier it gets.
I’ve experienced yoga as a gentle but powerful way for my body to reach a higher level of well-being. Nowadays many employers offer on-site yoga classes; and if yours is one I would recommend trying it. The healthier your body becomes, the easier it is to maintain a sense of well being and balance. And when the wobbles come and knock you off kilter you will know that simply pausing and breathing can put you in the right frame of mind to make the necessary adjustments.
Many of us can feel uncomfortable both hearing and saying the word no. It can close down a discussion and runs the risk of generating ill-feeling. It’s also a word we must embrace if we are to be Balanced Leaders.
There are of course two sides to no. The first is when it comes as a response to a request we’ve made. The second is when we find ourselves needing to use it.
When it comes to asking for a flexible working arrangement many women start with the assumption the response will be ‘no’. This is disempowering and closes down creative thinking. Instead begin with the assumption that what you want is possible – even if it takes some negotiating; and you start with a better mind set. No can be the start rather than the end of a conversation. As negotiation expert Natalie Reynolds points out:
When a door closes open it again. It’s a door – that’s how they work.
To reopen the door requires preparation. That means getting very clear on what it is you actually want. Rather than falling into the trap of all or nothing thinking consider whether there may be several suitable alternatives. For example: if you want flexibility to spend more time with the family you may realise a range of working options could suit you. The more flexible you are the more likely you will achieve your desired outcome.
Rather than focusing on a specific working arrangement from the start; ask yourself what a workable solution would look like. Do some research to discover what may already be happening under the radar inside your organisation. And who might have the flexible working experience that will reassure your manager.
Be willing to explore your manager’s concerns. Ask what s/he thinks a workable solution would look like. Ask open questions and listen – these are two excellent skills to cultivate for every area of your life.
Mind-set is as important as preparation. Remind yourself that flexible working is not an inconvenient concession your employer might grudgingly make. A well structured arrangement will not only improve your own well-being – and may be the difference between you staying or choosing to leave your job – but will also impact your productivity and engagement. So feel entitled to ask.
The reciprocal side of no comes when we find ourselves needing to use it – often to safeguard the boundaries that support our work-life balance.
Our desire to be liked will tempt us to say yes. Or we may fear a backlash in terms of a lost friendship. If that’s you then this advice from Holly Weeks – writing for the Harvard Business Review – will help you strengthen your resolve:
- Keep it neutral. Make it clear you’re saying no to the request and not the person.
- Be clear and decisive to avoid giving the false impression you may change your mind.
- Be honest about your compelling reason for refusal. Don’t dilute your no with lightweight excuses.
- Be prepared for pushback; and be realistic. Hearing no is likely to disappoint, or even generate anger.
When all’s said and done those of us who are parents know that our children can be our best teachers in how to navigate no. The skills we develop in dealing with toddler or teenage tantrums will prove invaluable in the workplace. As will the understanding that saying no is all part of the journey; and rarely final.
Becoming a Balanced Leader challenges us to hold a vision of living a balanced life as the foundation for our plans and actions. To succeed we need strategies and tools that work for us; together with a map to point us in the right direction. Over the past few months I’ve been pulling my expertise into a structured model which serves to do exactly that. On the eve of National Work Life Week if you’re in the UK and Work Family Month if you’re in the US I’m sharing that model.
I chose the acronym PROPEL as I know that following my model can literally propel your career to new levels.
P is for preferences in the way we choose to manage our work-life balance. While some of us are avid integrators others feel uncomfortable as technology and corporate expectations push us further and further in that direction. These are the separators who prefer to keep firm boundaries between work and the rest of life.
R is for the roles we play and the ways in which we play them. We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated. We can focus on combining roles in ways that enrich our lives and reduce the conflicts we may feel.
When we work through these first two steps we become much clearer on how we want to structure our lives and manage our boundaries. We can then begin to explore possibilities for redesigning our work.
O is for the options open to us within the culture and practices prevalent in our workplace. While some cultures openly embrace working from home others frown on reduced hours at senior levels. Gently pushing the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable is more likely to succeed than proposing radical changes that make people feel uncomfortable.
P is for possibilities. For considering how we can craft our work role to make the most of our key skills. So we become an even more valuable asset to our employers; and more productive and efficient into the bargain.
E is for the essential skills we need to make a success of all this. Many of these skills will already be in our portfolio – we may simply need to upgrade them. A small number – such as job crafting – may need to be learnt. The good news is that these are the same essential skills we’ll need to be successful leaders in both our workplaces and our lives.
L is for the leadership qualities we’re cultivating and the Balanced Leader we’re becoming.
So there it is: the evidence based road map to becoming a Balanced Leader. Straightforward, easy to understand and built on twenty five years expertise!
Faced with archaic corporate cultures that demand we choose between a senior role and a balanced life it’s easy to feel dis-empowered. Many of us are juggling life to the max and balk at taking on the additional challenge of operating as a Balanced Leader. In our frustration it’s easy to give in to our limiting beliefs and lose sight of how much power we really have to change things. So let me remind you of the truth.
We have the power to set our own boundaries.
Healthy boundaries are essential for our own well-being and a precursor to good working relationships with others. I’ve written about boundaries before and make no apologies for doing so again – because this is where we begin to build our foundation for a balanced life. It’s not simply about ‘finding me time’ or ‘learning to say no’. It’s about understanding our preferences for managing the work/non-work interface and where our current priorities lie. And about negotiating to get our needs met in respectful, adult ways.
We have the power to negotiate an acceptable flexible working arrangement
and we do this by first recognising our value to our employer. For far too long flexible working has been seen as a favour granted by the organisation; and one for which we should be grateful. But let’s be clear about this. If the alternative to working flexibly is that you’ll have no option but to leave then your employer will suffer financially. Recruiting your replacement requires time and money. You have the power to identify the unique value you bring to your work and to develop a flexible working schedule that benefits both you and the people with whom you interact.
We have the power to redefine what ‘Professional’ looks like
and overcome our fears that asking for flexibility will be read as putting our families first so we appear ‘unprofessional’. (That’s called stereotype threat by the way.) Within a flexible and more balanced arrangement it’s still possible to be professional. Think about Accountants, Lawyers, Bankers and Doctors for example. These are all professions that have redefined themselves over the past fifty years. For the most part they’ve become more approachable and more human; and chatting about families with them doesn’t reduce their professional standing in our eyes.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of experiencing our workplace structures as disempowering when we seek power outside ourselves. But when we dive deep into our inner qualities we discover we already have the power we need to rebalance our lives. And as we become more comfortable with accessing that power we also become the authentic leaders the world is looking for.
We find the power to literally re-write our story: from one of undervalued skills and frustrated careers to one of pioneers with the courage to become Balanced Leaders.
And we become role models that empower successive generations.
Access to a flexible – and balanced – working arrangement is one of the important fundamentals for supporting the progress of women in the workplace. At managerial levels the two most viable options tend to be job-share or a bespoke flexible arrangement.
In recent years support for job share has been gaining ground. It’s a relatively easy option to implement: it requires little change to a job’s structure, content or working arrangements; and it helps perpetuate the notion that a senior role must be covered full time.
Agreeing a bespoke flexible arrangement is often more challenging. It necessitates a review of the job description and the essential skills required of the post holder. Good HR practice recommends this should be routine every time a post becomes vacant. In fast moving workplaces the job you’ve been doing may only partly resemble the one your successor will undertake. And yet corporate cultures often continue to deny the creative possibilities inherent in many jobs.
It is of course perfectly possible to craft your own quality flexible job – but this requires time and thoughtful analysis. Something which seems to be in short supply in today’s pressurised environments. Two fundamental secrets underpin success. These are: firstly – absolute clarity and secondly – firm boundary management.
Let’s consider the example of the manager who asks to work three or four days a week to carve out some family time. Very quickly she’ll begin to feel exhausted as she tries to cram five days’ work into fewer hours. And she’s likely to end up feeling guilty that she’s not coping and letting her colleagues down. The fundamental reason for this is that she lacks absolute clarity: around her value to her employer and around the key outputs she’s been hired to deliver.
For a flexible working arrangement to succeed we must spend become very clear about the key skills we offer our employer. The ones that make us difficult to replace and that enable our contribution to the achievement of our employer’s objectives. When we identify these we’ll find it easier to craft a win-win flexible arrangement.
We must also become very skilled at managing our boundaries – particularly when it comes to our interactions with what Dr Lorenzo Bizzi terms our network contacts. These are the colleagues with whom we work and the clients for whom we provide a service. It’s not simply about learning to say no assertively; it’s also about understanding how their expectations of our role will have subtle impacts on our task activities. It’s about stakeholder management. We need to stop and ask ourselves “is this really part of my role? Do I need to do it in this way? Do I need to do it at this time?”
Many people boast of being productive by organising themselves with lists. But if you lack clarity about your job’s key purpose or you lack the skills to maintain a focus on that purpose how will you know whether you’re being productive or simply busy?