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.
Let’s say you want to work more flexibly to support a more balanced life; and your employer has both a policy and a culture that supports flexible working (or agile working as it’s increasingly being called). Let’s also say that your supportive manager is very happy for you to work a flexible arrangement; so responds positively when you raise the possibility.
So far, so good; and you may be lulled into thinking ‘job done, I’ll start working differently next week’.
If only it was that simple.
Unfortunately, in many organisations employees are being left to work out their new arrangements by themselves – which often results in #AlwaysOn working rather than a balanced arrangement. I’m planning to write more on the risks of #AlwaysOn later in the month, but for now I want to talk about why crafting a balanced arrangement is down to you.
- The right arrangement will support better balance – generating a feeling of enrichment rather than conflict between the various parts of your life. If you’re working at a manager level finding that arrangement will be down to you. It’s a combination of your specific needs, the key tasks required of you and the skills you bring to the job. All of these variables are likely to change as you progress through your life and your career. The time you spend developing and negotiating the arrangement that suits you best will pay dividends. By focusing on where you can make your biggest contributions you’ll be working more efficiently while still feeling your life is in balance. If you’re unsure of how to go about this, download my free workbook to guide you.
- Jobs change so why not actively change yours for the better? In our fast paced world the nature and content of jobs can change rapidly in response to (for example) customer demands or technological developments. Ideally, all employers would have a mechanism in place for reviewing the content of job descriptions at regular intervals. In my experience this rarely happens. Even where a job vacancy arises the temptation is to simply re-recruit into the existing description. The result can be a role where you find yourself ‘sweating the small stuff’; feeling unfulfilled as you battle with those tasks that make little use of your best skills while taking up the bulk of your working time. In addition developments in AI and its applications to workplace activities mean it’s likely your job will be impacted sooner or later. If technology is being used to make your work more productive this could be the moment to restructure your working arrangement for better balance as well.
3.You’ll be in good company (or at least one of many). There’s plenty of evidence to suggest people regularly and actively restructure their roles to better suit their needs. According to the research they’re likely to take one of three approaches:
- Negotiating an idiosyncratic or ‘i-deal’ based on individualised employment conditions. Specifically, research has revealed the use of i-deals as a way of reducing work-life conflict. If you’re interested in agreeing an i-deal take a look at the work of Professor Denise Rousseau from Carnegie Mellon University.
- Through job crafting. In this approach people make small adjustments to their working practices or work arrangements with the intention of improving job satisfaction. The key researcher here is Professor Amy Wrzesniewskibased at the Yale School of Management.
- Agreeing a ‘reduced load’ schedule that enables a managerial or professional employee to keep her feet on the career ladder while working a less than full time arrangement. Professor Ellen Ernst Kossekat Purdue University is currently researching this approach.
Once you’re clear on your preferred working arrangement it’s likely you’ll need to negotiate with the people around you. I’ll be sharing insights into this later in the month.