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

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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.

Finding balance: lessons from my yoga practice

Smiling businesswoman with exercise mat using mobile phone at of

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.

Navigating “No”

bigstock--Yes No concept 160784408

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.