Flexible working: what’s your business case?

African American businesswoman juggling many objects and feeling

At the end of last year the UK government turned the discussion about flexible working on its head. The Queen’s speech in December 2019 promised legislation to make flexible working the default position for all employees.

When I began campaigning for flexible working 25 years ago a positive business case was essential. Employers assumed a detriment and viewed flexibility as a concession for employees unable to work standard hours. Things have moved on since then. Increasing numbers of UK employees now have a legal right to request flexible working..

Evidence of the benefits that flexible working brings to employers has been accumulating. Flexible and reduced hours workers have been found to be as (and sometimes more) productive as their colleagues working standard arrangements. There has been a growing awareness of the large number of people forced to work below their skills levelin an effort to find flexibility; of mothers holding back from promotionbecause of concerns about work-life balance; and most recently of the enormous benefits that advertising all roles as flexible can bring in terms of attracting a more diverse range of applicants.

Despite this wealth of evidence some employers – and more pertinently some individual managers – remain sceptical. In my book I suggest you can be most persuasive when you develop your personal business case; and that you should think about it at three levels:

  1. The personal. What’s in it for your manager (and perhaps your team)? The obvious answer here is the resources he or she will lose if your health suffers and you begin to under-perform. If you feel you simply cannot continue in your current arrangement and resign there will also be a financial loss to your employer. Typically this will be the cost of recruiting your replacement and getting her up to speed. And don’t underestimate how much internal knowledge (about “how things are done around here”) you’ve accumulated.
  2. The wider organisational business case. This is represented by the ways in which your employer benefits from supporting women to progress into senior management.
  3. The external (PR) level. I’ve discovered that most employers value the kudos associated with an external award (such as Best Employer for Women or Best Employer for Working Families). At the external level there is also an increasing realisation that the internal setup should mirror the marketplace in which your employer operates. So, for example lawyers have told me they would not be received well if they sent a team to a potential client and the team comprised solely of white men.

If you need more clarity around developing your own business case I’ve prepared a free workbook which you can access here.

Along with building your business case goes a mind-set of feeling entitled to flexible working – especially where the latter is part of your strategy for reducing work-life conflict. Knowing that you’re entitled to live a balanced life will give you the courage to ask.

Once you’re clear on how flexible working benefits both you and your employer the next step is to work out what sort of arrangement best suits your needs. Join me next week when I’ll be writing about how to #upcycle your job (and why you should).

Work-life conflict or work-life enrichment?

Week 4 conflict or enrichment

Becoming a parent changes our perceptions of ourselves. A new responsibility has been thrust upon us; and for mothers in particular it often seems that this is at odds with the requirements of their career. In my book I write about ‘man made’ workplaces: cultures and practices established over half a century ago when the ideal worker was a man able to focus solely on work while his non-working wife provided support.

Despite changing social expectations and the fact that the majority of women now also work outside the home this ‘man made’ culture is still prevalent in many workplaces. The result is what researchers have termed ‘work-life conflict’ which happens for a number of reasons. For example, a woman returning from maternity leave may find that cultural expectations of what it means to be professional are at odds with her new role as a mother. We can’t simply drop childcare (or for that matter elder or other family care) at the front door when we enter our workplace.

As we find ourselves living and working in an increasingly #AlwaysOn culture we also find that work is more likely than ever to interrupt our non-work time (and vice versa). Where should our priorities lie? And how do we set them?

The opposite of work-life conflict is work-life enrichment. It’s the upside of being a working parent. Our working life enriches our parental experience and we often find that skills we learn as parents (such as the ability to negotiate or set boundaries) serve us well in the workplace. The secret lies in making small adjustments that increase enrichment and reduce conflict. We can do this by reconsidering how we play our parental and employee roles; by identifying where those old expectations came from and by asking ourselves whether they are helpful to us.

Research has shown that focusing on how the two parts of our life can enrich each other can make us feel better than when we consider work and life to be in conflict. To increase that feeling of enrichment consider taking some of the following actions:

  1. Set and maintain your boundaries. You’ll be more present to the people in your life – both at home and at work – and feel better as a result;
  2. Remind yourself that as a working mother you’re setting an example to your children of what’s possible for women. (We are, after all, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century!);
  3. Talk to your children about the work you do. Share both the upsides and the downsides. You’ll be making a start on preparing them for later life when they begin thinking about careers;
  4. Share your experiences (and best tips) with other parents in your workplace who are at an earlier point on the journey. In my experience most mothers value role models who’ve ‘been there and done that’.

Finding ways to combine the positive aspects of both roles is more likely to leave us feeling that our lives are enriched.

For many people a key factor in finding that balance is working flexibly. This is such an important factor in reducing work-life conflict that I plan to focus on it in upcoming blogs during the month of February. Stay with me on the journey.

Why you need better boundaries

String Of Blue And White Buoys On Calm Lake Waters.  Used As Bou

Last week I set the scene for why #rebalancing work and life is so important. This week we start looking at how to achieve that by considering why we need better boundaries.

When work life balance researchers talk about boundaries they are talking about the interplay between work and other aspects of life. Understanding and managing these boundaries is the linchpin to finding the balance that suits us, so I wanted to tackle the subject early on in our year of #rebalancing work and life.

Fifty years ago work and non-work lives were typically kept separate; and it was generally easy for us to do so. Work was carried out in the workplace and left behind when the working day was finished. Some people still prefer this approach; they are known as Separators.

For the majority of us, however, developments in technology and working practices have resulted in work becoming increasingly integrated with other aspects of our lives. Some people prefer to work this way (unsurprisingly they are known as Integrators).

Our reasons for integrating may be personal: we want to accommodate client needs; or to carve out time in the middle of our work to deal with aspects of our personal life. Alternatively our reasons may be driven by the expectations of others. For example, the long hours culture in our workplace may drive us to continue working once we get home.

As I explain in my book, integration at its extreme is bad for us since:

  • We find we can never switch off from work pressures;
  • Our attention is constantly pulled in several directions. We’re never fully present to the people we’re with or the tasks we’re doing;
  • Research evidence is confirming that ‘multitasking’ is both a myth and an inefficient way of working.

Professor Anna Cox studies human-computer interaction and its impact on work-life balance. She recommends the use of microboundaries.

Microboundaries are strategies we can put in place to limit the negative effects of boundary cross-overs – such as receiving a work email at the weekend – so that we feel more in control.

Professor Cox suggests a range of actions such as separating work and personal emails/apps; consciously deciding when not to carry a smartphone; disabling notifications when socialising or turning on night mode at bedtime.

This week I urge you to spend a few minutes thinking about where you can carve out better boundaries for yourself. It might be resolving to switch your mobile off for the hour you have dinner with your family; or taking time on your commute home to divest yourself of work pressures and prepare to be mentally present at home.

Life will always present us with emergencies but these are – thankfully – rare. For the rest of the time setting and maintaining our boundaries will both make us more effective and enable us to lead a richer life.

If you take no other actions to #rebalance your work and life this year; resolve to set better boundaries and to maintain them.

 

2020: the year to re-balance work and life

Close Up  Rethink Text Written In Torn Paper

It’s the start of 2020 and a twitter meme has just reminded us of the top 5 regrets of the dying. Unsurprisingly these centre around connection: with others and with ourselves, our inner feelings and desires. As someone once said:

Nobody on their deathbed regretted not spending more time at work.

And yet the powerful technologies that drive our smart devices are supporting practices that result in our strongest connections being to our work. We live in an #AlwaysOn culture. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century we need to rethink the way we live and work.

Increasingly we’re finding that 20th century working practices don’t fit 21st century lives.

What we need to do – as I explain in my book– is to #upcycle our jobs. I use the word upcycle deliberately.

When we upcycle something we revamp it to create something of higher quality or value than the original. We do it with much loved clothes and furniture and we can do it with our work and our careers.

Upcycling our jobs will make us:

  • More productive

Upcycling jobs means looking at ways to eliminate the low value tasks that take up a disproportionate amount of our time while making little use of valuable skills. Can these low value tasks be automated? Delegated? Or perhaps eliminated altogether.

  • More balanced

Upcycling allows us to pause and consider our current work life balance needs; and how closely they match our present reality. There’s no formula for the ‘perfect work life balance’. What’s right for us will shift as we progress through life and our circumstances change. When we review our needs and desires we can make the necessary adjustments that enable us to lead a richer life. One with more connection to family and friends; and to ourselves.

  • More visionary

It’s no secret that workplace change over the past half century has often been driven by women, and specifically by working mothers. They were the ones that pressed for employer understanding of childcare needs; and for flexible working arrangements such as term-time and job-share. There’s still more to do – particularly now that changing expectations mean we all want a better balance between work and other parts of our lives. Sacrificing everything at the altar of career and promotion has become unpopular. At the same time we need to redress the balance at senior levels in the corporate world. Research evidence is increasingly revealing that mothers in particular hold themselves back from promotion as they seek solutions to work life balance issues.

As we upcycle jobs we’re creating new possibilities in the workplace. Working arrangements that better suit our 21st century lifestyles. Possibilities that will help us complete the workplace revolution started by our mothers and grandmothers over half a century ago.  That’s a legacy worth leaving for our children.

Over the course of this coming year my blog posts will be all about the small steps we can all take to upcycle our jobs and re-balance work and life.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

Being your best self

A Woman Looks In The Direction Of Her Black And White Reflection

Just today another email dropped into my inbox from a renowned female coach urging me to play bigger. It’s a message that’s constantly being thrown at women; as if we’re somehow shrinking from our potential or perhaps not being assertive enough in our lives. The thing is: if we’re juggling the caring load with a challenging career (and probably several other things as well) ‘playing bigger can seem both daunting and exhausting.

What if there was an easier way? One that appears smaller but is likely to be more powerful – leading us to feel we’re fulfilling on our potential?

There is: and it’s the art of being our best self. The temptation is to rattle through crazy busy lives on autopilot, doing the minimum to get by. What if we paused, reflected and chose to hold a deeper vision of who we are. Everything would begin to change. Psychologists sometimes talk about ‘possible future selves’ – the people we might choose to become. But the reality is we also have possible current selves – who we choose to be in the moment.

Being your best self is an exercise in mindfulness and it’s built on forging a deep connection to our spiritual core. Then, at any moment and in any challenge, we can stop and ask ourselves: “what’s the best action I can take right now?” I’m not talking about getting more strategic, but about becoming more authentic; acting with more integrity. How would your best self react in this situation?

When we go through life mindfully we begin to find more balance. It becomes easier to identify when to act and when to let things go. We grow more confident in our sense of worthiness. We begin to understand that we cannot be our best self when we’re lacking focus and feeling pulled in a thousand different directions.

Our best self recognises that in order to thrive we need to assert our needs, to ask for support, set boundaries and hold others to account. As we commit to being our best selves, we not only hold that vision, but we extend it to the people around us – creating a space for them also to be their best selves.

That way we do more than simply #upcycle our jobs. We #upcycle ourselves as we grow into the best version of ourselves.

And when we do we might just find we’re playing bigger.

Feeling like an Imposter?

Mystery Hoody Man Wearing Black Mask Holding Two White Masks In

Imposter syndrome is a phrase that’s often bandied about in the media; the suggestion being that it’s a key roadblock to women’s career success. Often conflated with poor self-esteem and one’s ‘inner critic’ true imposter syndrome is rare and affects both men and women equally. To grow into Balanced Leaders it’s important we understand what Imposter syndrome really is: not least because research has shown it can contribute to work-family conflict.

Imposter syndrome – or more accurately impostor phenomenon – was first identified by two American Psychologists back in 1978. It’s defined by six clear characteristics: feelings of intellectual phoniness; a belief that one’s success is attributed to luck or hard work and not ability; a lack of confidence in one’s ability to repeat past achievements; a fear of being evaluated by others and failure; the inability to derive pleasure from past achievements and a fear that one’s incompetence will be discovered by others.

It’s quite possible to feel like an imposter without suffering from imposter syndrome. Doing our best to appear competent in a professional role and also be a good parent can lead to feelings that we’re not achieving either – that we’ll be found out as a fraud. Often that’s a consequence of having little clarity in what’s expected of us in both our workplace and home roles. We take on the expectations of others and try to live up to them. Perhaps it’s time to re-consider and write our own role scripts.

Our feelings of being an imposter can be exacerbated by the complexities inherent in the modern workplace; and which increasingly call on us to navigate circumstances we’ve never before encountered. As women we know we’re likely to be judged harshly should we make a mistake; so it’s important that we connect with our inner power and grow ourselves into the leaders we want to become.

Research has shown that our feelings of being an imposter can lead to emotional exhaustion which in turn can result in work to family conflict. This happens when we feel that playing our family role is made more difficult by the demands of our work role. Psychologists explain this by talking about the Conservation of Resources. Each of us has finite physical and psychological resources and we do our best to guard these. When we feel like an imposter we are likely to expend more of these resources in order to do a good job, leaving us depleted during our family time.

The good news is research has also shown that when we feel supported by our employer we are less likely to suffer the damaging effects of feeling like an imposter. So we can help ourselves by:

  • Asking our manager to clearly define the outcomes expected of us;
  • Asking for the resources we need to be effective in our work;
  • Identifying what gets in the way of us achieving our workplace objectives and doing our best to eliminate those obstacles.

At the heart of the imposter phenomenon lies a deep-seated and flawed self-image constructed over many years. Changing that self-image is likely to require psychological support from someone qualified to help. But feeling like an imposter some of the time is almost inevitable as we navigate life’s challenges and changes. In all likelihood you’re not suffering from a syndrome; you’re simply experiencing the normal doubts and uncertainties that go with undertaking something new. The good news is you’re more than capable of resolving those doubts and uncertainties; and taking the necessary action that will get you to where you want to be.

It’s time to #Upcycle Your Job

Upcycle-your-job-BL Blog

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.