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Outdated gender stereotypes have apparently resurfaced in lockdown; with many men assuming their job takes priority over that of their wives.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?

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?

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Rebalancing – one small step at a time

Asian Toddler Boy Climbs Up The Wooden Stairs

It’s week three of our journey to #rebalance work and life in 2020. So far I’ve covered the reasons why we should #rebalance; and shared the key principle underpinning successful balance.

This week I want to turn the spotlight on our approach to self-change; by suggesting we start small and grow into it. Radical change often proves difficult to sustain. And when that radical change depends on co-operation from those around us (as is often the case when it comes to work-life balance) the challenge increases. At a workshop several years ago I heard one of the wisest pieces of advice ever given to me:

“Change happens best when nobody notices”

The workshop was an introduction to Solutions Focus – an approach to change grounded in positive psychology – and the words were spoken by the workshop leader. Solutions Focus encourages the taking of small steps towards a desired future state. Over time these small steps can lead to big results. In my book I explain how we can apply this approach to #rebalancing our lives.

Stewart Friedman from the Wharton Business School has been pioneering a concept he calls Total Leadership for many years. He recommends we design small experiments to help us find more balance in our lives; and try them out for a set period of time to see what happens. The idea is to look at wins that benefit every area of our lives while considering how the people around us might also benefit from those wins.

Professor Friedman recommends we set an intention to pursue small wins that create big change. Massive shifts often fail because they’re difficult to manage. According to him the best experiments allow us to try something new while minimising the risks associated with change. Our fear of failure is reduced; and as we see results we become inspired to go further – building stakeholder support along the way.

Many of us will have come across a variant of the ‘action priority matrix’ that groups activities into four quadrants: .quick wins, major projects, fill ins and thankless tasks. If you think about the changes that would help #rebalance your life, which ones are quick wins and which are major projects?

I suggest directing your efforts in the first instance to the quick wins. (those having the highest impact for the lowest effort). Pause and consider what you’ve learnt and what progress you’ve made. If you’re ready for a bigger change you can build on your success by taking on a ‘major project’. This will demand more time, effort and planning but will lead you further in the direction of your preferred work-life balance.

For the most part we live our lives in gradual and constant change. Landscapes shift with the seasons, our children grow slowly day by day until we notice they’re no longer the helpless infants we once held but young adults ready to fly the nest; and even our own bodies change as we age.

This week I encourage you to harness the changes going on in your life in ways that will support better balance going forward – both for your own benefit and that of those around you.

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.

Coping with complexity

Smiling female student siting front open book and learning

We live in a complex world. Some commentators go further and call it a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Choosing to champion Balanced Working for ourselves and our team can – ironically – add an extra layer of complexity to our working lives. At least at the outset.

How do we help ourselves and our teams to manage these complex environments?

Since the middle of the last century psychologists have come to understand that making decisions when we’re faced with too many choices becomes stressful. And – of course – our #AlwaysOn hyper-connected lifestyles are resulting in an overwhelm of information.

As an antidote, Stanford University Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt recommends setting three simple rules. Three rules are likely to be remembered and more likely to be put into action when people are stressed.

Simplicity is also the recommendation of author and speaker Greg McKeown. According to him becoming a great leader requires:

“the disciplined pursuit of less but better”

McKeown’s research has shown that teams and the people in them thrive with a high level of clarity of purpose. He stresses the importance of carving out the time and space needed to achieve that clarity.

A team that aims to achieve Balanced Working will need two layers of simple rules. The first must be around how to manage their more flexible working practices. The developers of ROWE (the Results-Only Work Environment) offer some guidance here with rules around the acceptable use of time during the day; around communication and around actually doing the work for which we’ve been hired.

Once those rules are in place the team can focus on simplifying work processes: developing the capacity to be more agile in response to the ever changing workplace environment.

Aiming for clarity and simplicity protects us against what Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann call ‘hypervigilant behaviour’ – often exhibited when we attempt to make complex decisions under duress. The outcome is a never ending search for more information while we try and find the ideal solution.

A further benefit of simplicity – according to Professor Eisenhardt – is that collecting too much data results in using the past to predict the future. Our own experience of the rapid pace of change increasingly tells us this is unlikely to be the case. The future will be different.

Faced with this knowledge we must learn to let go of our desire to control that future. A recent McKinsey article advises leaders to develop:

“a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty”

Psychologists consider organisations to be complex adaptive systems in constant tension between stability and change. Although it’s true we’ve had more and more of the latter in recent years. It’s this emergent change that often fuels our uncertainty. But if we are to adapt and to create better ways of working we must learn to embrace and manage it.