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.
As I write this blog post I’m excited to report that after months of work my book is finally being published on Friday. Half way through developing the manuscript I changed the title to #Upcycle Your Job and the more I worked with that the more sense it made to me.
Upcycling has been a growing trend in the past few years. When we upcycle we take something we would otherwise discard and improve it to create something of higher quality or value than the original. If we can do that with our clothes and furniture why not with our jobs?
In an ideal world employers would regularly upcycle their jobs
in line with their flexible working practices.
Re-designing jobs will soon become a necessity as we move into the age of Artificial Intelligence and the Gig Economy. And when we focus on the notion of improving rather than simply redesigning we become more creative and end up with work that’s more valuable to our organisations. The result is upcycled jobs that fit our 21st century working lives.
Occupational Psychologists have known for years that the size and shape of jobs has an impact on wellbeing. Unfortunately it’s an increasingly negative impact as employees struggle to disconnect from mobile technology that keeps them constantly tied to work. For many women the situation is exacerbated by employers who agree to reduced hours working but fail to provide any guidance on how the job might be redesigned to accommodate this.
Having people working on unproductive tasks until they are exhausted is not a sound business strategy. When we upcycle jobs we focus on high value outputs that use our most valuable skills. It’s not a new idea but one to which I was first introduced (via the Work Out process) back in the 1990s when working for GE.
In the absence of employer led initiatives upcycling our job is down to us: and our career may well depend upon it. If you’re tempted to upcycle I offer the following advice:
- It’s unlikely you’ll be doing anything new. There’s plenty of evidence that employees already engage in crafting their jobs to make best use of their skills and personalities. There’s also evidence to suggest job crafting enhances wellbeing.
- The intersection where your work-life balance preferences and your flexible working arrangement meet is personal so you’re the best person to upcycle your job accordingly.
- Running around with too much to do and little focus will only result in exhaustion. It won’t get you promoted. What will is an upcycled job that supports you to achieve the key tasks for which you were hired.
This month I invite you to become the Balanced Leader of your own life; and let my book show you how to #Upcycle Your Job.
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.
The word flexism may not have made its way into the dictionary yet but the concept has been around for several years. It refers to the unconscious bias held against those who work flexibly (and often less than full time). It raised its head again last month as research findings released by the social enterprise Timewise suggested it was rife in the workplace.
Flexism impacts behaviour in both overt and covert ways. The Timewise report gave examples of the former: reduced hours workers feeling their input is less valued and that colleagues don’t see them them as a full member of the team. In addition, as they often have less opportunities to socialise with colleagues they can also feel less connected to them.
Covert flexism manifests itself as the unspoken assumptions often held by managers that reduced hours workers are less interested in development and stretch assignments; that their focus is on family rather than career.
If you want more balanced working how do you face down flexism?
Start by changing the conversation. Rather than explaining the reasons for your reduced hours in terms of caring responsibilities; make it clear that this is a conscious strategy to keep you and your skills in the workplace. Focus on the contributions you are making in your job..
Look for opportunities to let your manager know you’re still keen to progress and to take on stretch assignments. Remind him that you’re willing to explore how it might work in practice.
Since you’re the one working non-standard hours the reality is that it’s down to you to create opportunities to socialise and connect with colleagues. Make use of available technology such as intranets; or suggest socialising at lunchtime rather than after work. You may be surprised at how positively your suggestion is received..
You’ve had the courage to ask, now think about how you can influence the thinking of others. Could you start a conversation with your colleagues to explore the benefits of flexible working for them? There’s mounting evidence that men are also looking for balanced working. They want to be involved fathers; and many are also carers of adults. And they too are aware of the subtle flexism rife in organisations. If you open up a discussion who knows where it may lead.
To do all this effectively you’ll need to get ruthless at crafting a workable job. Focus on the key tasks that will help you achieve your objectives. And see making time to network as essential to your development. It’s likely to bring new opportunities. As Herminia Ibarra observes: “If you don’t create new opportunities within the confines of your “day job” they may never come your way.”
Above all else remain confident of your skills and who you are. You get to define yourself, not other people. Define yourself by your contribution and not your limitations.
Becoming a Balanced Leader challenges us to hold a vision of living a balanced life as the foundation for our plans and actions. To succeed we need strategies and tools that work for us; together with a map to point us in the right direction. Over the past few months I’ve been pulling my expertise into a structured model which serves to do exactly that. On the eve of National Work Life Week if you’re in the UK and Work Family Month if you’re in the US I’m sharing that model.
I chose the acronym PROPEL as I know that following my model can literally propel your career to new levels.
P is for preferences in the way we choose to manage our work-life balance. While some of us are avid integrators others feel uncomfortable as technology and corporate expectations push us further and further in that direction. These are the separators who prefer to keep firm boundaries between work and the rest of life.
R is for the roles we play and the ways in which we play them. We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated. We can focus on combining roles in ways that enrich our lives and reduce the conflicts we may feel.
When we work through these first two steps we become much clearer on how we want to structure our lives and manage our boundaries. We can then begin to explore possibilities for redesigning our work.
O is for the options open to us within the culture and practices prevalent in our workplace. While some cultures openly embrace working from home others frown on reduced hours at senior levels. Gently pushing the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable is more likely to succeed than proposing radical changes that make people feel uncomfortable.
P is for possibilities. For considering how we can craft our work role to make the most of our key skills. So we become an even more valuable asset to our employers; and more productive and efficient into the bargain.
E is for the essential skills we need to make a success of all this. Many of these skills will already be in our portfolio – we may simply need to upgrade them. A small number – such as job crafting – may need to be learnt. The good news is that these are the same essential skills we’ll need to be successful leaders in both our workplaces and our lives.
L is for the leadership qualities we’re cultivating and the Balanced Leader we’re becoming.
So there it is: the evidence based road map to becoming a Balanced Leader. Straightforward, easy to understand and built on twenty five years expertise!
Access to a flexible – and balanced – working arrangement is one of the important fundamentals for supporting the progress of women in the workplace. At managerial levels the two most viable options tend to be job-share or a bespoke flexible arrangement.
In recent years support for job share has been gaining ground. It’s a relatively easy option to implement: it requires little change to a job’s structure, content or working arrangements; and it helps perpetuate the notion that a senior role must be covered full time.
Agreeing a bespoke flexible arrangement is often more challenging. It necessitates a review of the job description and the essential skills required of the post holder. Good HR practice recommends this should be routine every time a post becomes vacant. In fast moving workplaces the job you’ve been doing may only partly resemble the one your successor will undertake. And yet corporate cultures often continue to deny the creative possibilities inherent in many jobs.
It is of course perfectly possible to craft your own quality flexible job – but this requires time and thoughtful analysis. Something which seems to be in short supply in today’s pressurised environments. Two fundamental secrets underpin success. These are: firstly – absolute clarity and secondly – firm boundary management.
Let’s consider the example of the manager who asks to work three or four days a week to carve out some family time. Very quickly she’ll begin to feel exhausted as she tries to cram five days’ work into fewer hours. And she’s likely to end up feeling guilty that she’s not coping and letting her colleagues down. The fundamental reason for this is that she lacks absolute clarity: around her value to her employer and around the key outputs she’s been hired to deliver.
For a flexible working arrangement to succeed we must spend become very clear about the key skills we offer our employer. The ones that make us difficult to replace and that enable our contribution to the achievement of our employer’s objectives. When we identify these we’ll find it easier to craft a win-win flexible arrangement.
We must also become very skilled at managing our boundaries – particularly when it comes to our interactions with what Dr Lorenzo Bizzi terms our network contacts. These are the colleagues with whom we work and the clients for whom we provide a service. It’s not simply about learning to say no assertively; it’s also about understanding how their expectations of our role will have subtle impacts on our task activities. It’s about stakeholder management. We need to stop and ask ourselves “is this really part of my role? Do I need to do it in this way? Do I need to do it at this time?”
Many people boast of being productive by organising themselves with lists. But if you lack clarity about your job’s key purpose or you lack the skills to maintain a focus on that purpose how will you know whether you’re being productive or simply busy?
When I recently registered a new coaching client she told me she knew she was holding herself back. Her bosses think highly of her and she’s been encouraged to go for promotion. But she was reluctant – because she couldn’t see how to retain any semblance of work-life balance if she progressed into middle management.
After three sessions with me – and only seven weeks later – she’s a changed woman. She’s now firmly committed to renegotiating her current role for more flexibility. And to progressing her career on a more flexible basis. Naturally I’m delighted to have provided her with tools and strategies that opened more options than she’d previously imagined.
I’d like to say: “result, job done” but she and I both know that’s not the case. We know she’s at the start of her journey. She’s joined the army of female pioneers setting a new workplace agenda. And she’s consciously undertaking that role in what is an aggressively traditional workplace culture. She understands that she’s laying herself open to scrutiny and criticism. However, we’re both confident she’s not opening herself to failure.
Together we’re developing a winning strategy:
- Before she begins renegotiating her working arrangements we’ve spent time identifying her value to her employer; and the high potential cost of losing her.
- We’ve identified the key stakeholders she needs to influence. And as she comes from a project management background managing stakeholders is a key strength for her.
- We’ve evaluated various flexible working options – including reduced hours, job-share and job-split – and considered both the benefits and downsides of each.
- We’ve pinpointed her key strengths and identified areas where she needs to upskill.
So far we’ve already spent six hours talking about how she might craft a Quality Flexible Job for herself. One that supports balance while making the best use of her skills on her employer’s behalf. It’s a considerable investment in time given the busy pace at which many of us work these days. We’re certain it’s time well spent.
We’re not finished yet. When we meet again we’ll be planning how to mitigate any potential risks. Identifying small gradual steps that make up the journey to Balanced Leadership. As they say: “forewarned is forearmed”.
I mentioned last year that one of my favourite maxims is “the unit within the system with the most responses controls the system”. With my support she’s developing a range of responses, identifying small changes and making course corrections as she goes along. And that’s our winning strategy.