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Outdated gender stereotypes have apparently resurfaced in lockdown; with many men assuming their job takes priority over that of their wives.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

Essential foundations for the new normal workplace

The Worker Cleans And Levels The Sand Base With A Wooden Board F

We have the evidence that more people want ‘flexible’ working than are currently able to access it. We also know that for many people flexibility apparently lies in the possibility of working remotely and during non-standard hours. On the face of it,  lockdown has created these circumstances and demonstrated to employers this type of working arrangement is likely to succeed. Some pundits are already proclaiming a post pandemic ‘new normal’ where home working and flexible hours become more widespread. Others choose to disagree, suggesting employers have embraced homeworking as a temporary ‘necessary evil’ and will want a reversion to previous working arrangements as soon as permissible.

It’s an interesting debate that currently fills many pages of the internet; but it also misses the point. Extending current arrangements does little more than support #AlwaysOn working. It changes nothing.

Balanced new normal working arrangements are built on three new foundations.

  1. A rethink of inflexible job structures

There’s little point in flexibility about time and place if we retain existing inflexible job structures. Ones that contend jobs beyond a certain level in the hierarchy require long hours and the continuity of a single post holder. We’re increasingly accumulating evidence (and successful role models) to demonstrate that reduced hours in senior roles can be successful. That the ‘two heads are better than one’ benefits of job-share often outweigh slightly higher costs. And especially when it comes to increasing women’s representation in senior roles and reducing gender pay gaps, rethinking how we design work is an essential.

  1. Realigning HR practices

So many of our current HR policies are out of line with any attempts at balanced working. Employees who work from home often pay a penalty as a consequence of their lack of visibility with senior decision makers. They may be passed over when it comes to career defining assignments, or simply considered less committed in cultures that value long hours over productive outputs.

Even more enlightened HR policies such as those sanctioning reduced hours at senior levels are rarely supported with the requisite follow through. I’m tired of reading social media posts from women who’ve been allowed to reduce their hours with little or no guidance about how to reduce their workload accordingly.

  1. Tackling biased thinking

I rarely write about bias. It’s a tricky area. The jury is still out as to the effectiveness of the Unconscious Bias training that’s currently so popular in many workplaces. The evidence suggests that making people aware of their biases can be counterproductive. And when it comes to our quest for balanced working there are a number of biases that get in the way of women. Many are embedded in outmoded working practices and assumptions that working mothers must choose between a focus on family or one on work. As Stew Friedman has pointed out, professionals increasingly want to focus on getting the best out of both. Tackling many of these implicit biases requires open and honest conversations; rather than decisions based on unvoiced assumptions.

This week I encourage you to actively choose a new normal that supports balanced working by challenging outmoded assumptions and practices; and encouraging your employer to address these three essential foundations for a balanced workplace.

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.

From Reactor to Creator

Close Up Of Old English Dictionary Page With Word Creator

The global response to the pandemic has been swift. The resulting lockdown – as I wrote last week – created a nightmare situation for many working parents. It’s just as well women have always excelled at fixing things behind the scenes: isn’t that what the mental load is all about?

And yet again women – working mums in particular – have stepped up. The evidence is compelling: news and research articles describing how women continue to shoulder much of the burden of care and household work in the ‘new normal’. And social media posts from women asking for tips on how to work and home school; how to negotiate with partners also working at home; and how to fit it all into 24 hours when sleep is a necessity.

In a crisis women respond. And in that same crisis they often find creative opportunities.

Now the talk is turning to what happens as restrictions are lifted. It’s time to turn our attention towards the future; and to creating a ‘new normal’ that suits us and our families better. Drawing on the experiences of the past few weeks here are a few small steps to take:

  • Reflect on whether your business case for flexible working has strengthened. The consensus is that the enforced move to home working demonstrated to employers that more jobs can be worked flexibly than they were ever willing to acknowledge.
  • Use this opportunity to negotiate the reduced hours arrangement you need. Given speculation that employers may need to cut jobs, this is an ideal way for yours to retain key skills. If you’re in a managerial or other senior role then job-share could be the way to proceed. It’s an easy one for employers to understand. And as they say: two heads are better than one. With planning the impact on employers is minimal and there are many intermediaries out there who can help set it up.
  • Ask your HR department whether the organisation has a stated Work Life Balance Policy; and whether guidelines exist on how to switch off from work. Research has shown only half of employers provide any formal advice on how to manage the information and communications technologies that increasingly push us to be always connected to work. Research has also shown this takes its toll on mothers who often work a triple shift and end up exhausted.
  • If your workplace has a Parents or Women’s network put improving work life balance on the agenda for the next meeting. Encourage people to share their recent experiences and reflect on how things can be improved to accommodate women’s unpaid (and often invisible) caring responsibilities.
  • Use this time to normalise conversations around work life balance. Most of us are currently in the same boat: juggling home and work in unprecedented ways. We’re being encouraged to acknowledge the challenges when interacting with colleagues. But the risk remains that once schools open and grandparents come out of lockdown those challenges will again fall off the radar of managers and employers. It’s essential we ensure that doesn’t happen or women will continue to be underrepresented at senior levels in the workplace.

The creative part of our brains has been given a boost as we’ve engaged in play with our children or reconnected with our cookery skills. Let’s harness that new found creativity to establish new ways to lean in on our own terms.

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.