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.
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.