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.

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.

Origins of the Balanced Leader model

Over the past few months my main focus has been on writing my new book; and I’m pleased to share that I’ve almost finished. As I’m currently working on the Leadership chapter I thought it would be fitting to share some of that this month.

Regular readers of this blog will know I believe choosing to walk the Balanced Leader journey is in itself an act of leadership. Rejecting the stereotyped notion that leadership is all about employer first and work-life balance last is a pioneering move. When we make it we become thought leaders and role models for the people around us.

So what do I mean by Balanced Leadership?

I’d like to tell you about three people whose academic work has influenced my thinking, writing and coaching. I’ve mentioned them in previous posts so they won’t be strangers to you.

The first is leadership expert Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe. I first wrote about her here. Unhappy with the ‘heroic’ and ‘charismatic’ models popular at the turn of the century that – according to her – were the result of “white men studying white men” she developed an alternative. Her Engaging Leadership model is deliberately inclusive of ethnicity, gender and other characteristics of the wider population; and does not discriminate in favour of particular leadership styles. It’s a model that’s been adopted by many public sector organisations in the UK and is increasingly spreading to the private sector.

Why do I like this model? Quite simply: because the focus is on how leaders can elicit extraordinary performance from their team by focusing on behaviours that engage people. And engaging people is something women tend to be good at – so it plays to our natural strengths.

My second influence is Stew Friedman.  Stew has been running the Total Leadership programme at Wharton Business School for many years. He’s developed a process for achieving ‘four way wins’ – at work, at home, in the community and for yourself – acting on the three principles of being real, being whole and being innovative. Again I like this model because I believe it both speaks to women and draws on their strengths. It’s widely acknowledged that women want to be authentic – or ‘real’ – at work; and that they want to be able to focus on balancing their whole lives rather than sacrificing one part for another. And I know it’s also a growing desire among men – particularly younger fathers who would like to be more involved parents.

Thirdly, I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of Herminia Ibarra and I wrote about her latest book ‘Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader some time ago.

Much of her work focuses on how we create our workplace identities and she has come to understand these rarely arrive fully formed. We typically need to grow into them. As I mentioned in the earlier blog post those of us who’ve become parents will recognise the truth of that. We feel our way into new behaviours, act in different ways and become the people we come to see ourselves as being. That’s true whether we’re talking about being a parent or being a leader.

It should be pretty obvious – based on the above – why I like Herminia’s work. But there’s more. As we feel our way into new workplace roles she suggests we should also be more playful with ourselves and our identity.

I consider this to be very useful advice. When we’re playful we don’t take things so seriously. We feel we’ve less to lose. So we can try on different leadership qualities; see which ones suit us and discard the rest.

And that’s it. Three respected academics whose work is influencing new ways of thinking about leadership more relevant to the 21st Century – including my Balanced Leader model.

 

Pressing for Progress

International Women's Day Equality Rights Graphic

International Women’s Day falls in early March and this year’s theme was #PressForProgress.

From the moment they entered the corporate world in large numbers – back in the 1960s and 1970s – women have been pressing for progress at work. And yet they still face the same challenges: working practices structured around men’s career patterns that make it impossible to combine a senior role and caring for family. And corporate cultures that pay lip service to supporting work-life balance while penalising those who actively seek it.

Those pioneering women showed courage when they pressed for progress. They challenged notions of how work should be done and gained concessions such as term-time working and job-share.

Fast forward fifty years and the business case for gender balanced organisations is well documented. We’ve been waiting for our employers to act; and little has changed.

If we’re going to #PressForProgress we need a new generation of women to step up to leadership in their working lives; and to change things. We must embrace what Stewart Friedman calls Total Leadership

‘Total” because it’s about the whole person and ‘Leadership’ because it’s about ‘creating sustainable change to benefit not just you but the most important people around you.

What it means to be a leader is constantly being redefined. From the early days of ‘command and control’ through heroic models of charismatic white men to the broader definitions of the 21st Century. We’ve also come to understand that women’s approach to leadership differs from that of men. Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe found that women place more emphasis on the relationship between a manager and their direct reports. They work to a concept of ‘empowerment’ that includes principles of interdependence, co-operation and connectedness; and the sharing of power,

This feminine approach ties in well with emergent thinking about leadership not as an act of heroism, but one of serving and enabling others to display leadership themselves. It is not about being an extraordinary person, but rather an ordinary, vulnerable, humble, accessible and transparent one.

Choosing to become a Balanced Leader is an act of courage that will change our lives and those of the people around us. We all have the capacity to make that choice. Indeed as corporate women’s development programmes encourage women to find their authentic leadership style we must embrace Balanced Leadership as ours. In this way we continue to #PressForProgress as we skilfully combine our journey to the boardroom with other aspects of our lives.

Friedman’s approach is to do something new for a short period and see how it affects all aspects of our lives (work, home, community and self). If it doesn’t work out, stop or adjust, and little is lost. If it does work out, it’s a small win. Over time these add up so that overall efforts are focused increasingly on what matters most.  Just as I did in this earlier blog, he recommends taking small steps that minimize the risks and enable us to overcome our fear of failure.

Alimo-Metcalfe recommends linking our actions to our employer’s business objectives. So in pressing for more balanced working arrangements we are supporting the drive to encourage women into senior roles. And at the same time we’re enabling better work-life balance for everyone.

We must embrace the fact that – as with previous cohorts of working women – it’s down to each and every one of us to #PressForProgress. We don’t need to wait for employers and we don’t need to wait for permission. We simply need the courage to ask.

 

Men as Balanced Leaders

Father With Baby Working In Office At Home

I started this blog for two reasons: Firstly my passion for and belief that work-life balance should be universally accessible. When we lead balanced lives we benefit and those around us benefit.

Secondly – and as importantly – because the enduring lack of balanced working options at senior levels continues to block the progression of many women.

Social attitudes towards parenting have been shifting rapidly but the belief that taking care of children – and elderly relatives – is still primarily a woman’s responsibility continues. As long as corporate cultures refuse to acknowledge the challenges this poses women continue to be forced to make choices between career and caring.

Until now most of my posts have been written with working mothers in mind. So I felt it was time to acknowledge the increasing challenges faced by working fathers.

Last month the American Psychological Association published research findings showing that men and women around the world experience similar levels of work-family conflicts. The struggles of men are – however – largely unreported.

The role of fathers has shifted dramatically in one or two generations. Younger men generally want more day to day involvement in their children’s lives. Professor Caroline Gatrell of Lancaster University calls this ‘involved fathering’.

And legislation is increasingly supporting them. For example, the UK recently introduced Shared Parental Leave.

When they opt to become Balanced Leaders men face many of the same challenges faced by women. Men are also worried about how a desire for work-life balance will penalise career progression. And those entrenched social expectations make it difficult for them to talk openly about the issue.

At the Wharton Business School Professor Stew Friedman has been running the Total Leadership Programme since the early 1990s. The programme guides and supports both men and women to balanced leadership in every area of their lives.

Programmes like Stew’s are rare. Senior male role models are rare – although high profile men are beginning to step up as visible champions of balanced working. Men are being challenged to both redefine masculinity and the status quo of outdated corporate cultures. In many ways they are as much pioneers as the women I’ve written about in earlier posts.

When we support men to be Balanced Leaders we support their wellbeing and we provide new role models for the next generation. And as Balanced Leadership slowly becomes the norm it will also positively benefit women’s career progression.