It’s work-life balance, Jim, but not as we know it.
It’s time to figure out a new version of work-life balance or work-life blend.
National Work-Life Week invades our busy schedules, with measured irony, in early October each year. Created by our friends at the charity Working Families in 2010, it’s now embraced by many employers as ‘an opportunity to focus on wellbeing at work and work-life fit for everyone’.
Let’s just pause there. ‘National Work-Life Week’. Work. Life. These have both been thrown into question in rather profound and new ways in the last few months. How they fit together has been shuffled too. Perhaps, though, in all this turmoil, there is also space to be ourselves a bit more, and find our own versions of balance.
Make yourself at home
Work has ‘come home’, into bedrooms, kitchens and busy corners, for many of us at least. All around the globe, in places and sectors where it simply would not have been considered, we are suddenly in our colleagues’ homes. Getting ready for work may be less about digging out smart trousers and more about moving that tatty bath robe hanging on the back of the door. We are being seen in different ways and many people have remarked how this has made our conversations more candid too. Especially with more honest discussions about racial inequality as well. There seems to be scope for something more human in how we relate to our colleagues. We’re almost literally more at home with each other.
What’s your blend?
Sometimes, in a crisis, we learn much more about who we actually are, at our best, and worst. Right now, there’s scope to find out in new ways how we actually work best and what matters to us. What is your own version of work-life blend? Are you an Integrator or Separator? Even in ‘normal’ times some people prefer to draw a line under work and walk away while others run ‘work’ life and ‘home’ life in parallel all day: which are you? Understanding this will guide the expectations you need to set with family or house-mates and colleagues to preserve your sanity, during these unusually blended times!
You may not be able to control everything but if, for example, you thrive best as a separator, then at least have some sense of being able to walk away from your ‘desk’ when you’re not working and give yourself a defined start and end to the working day.
If you function best as an Integrator, then these strange times may suit you well in some ways, but make sure you let your team know when they can expect to contact you even though you are spinning many plates at the same time, probably across day and evening alike. And stop, sometimes, to check on your priorities, which can get clouded when everything happens at once.
Either way, ask yourself from time to time whether your version of separating or integrating is working for you, and what you could do to regain a little more balance or control, even when things feel crazy busy.
Where’s your energy source?
It also helps to figure out whether we are Introverts or Extraverts (or a combination). Extraverts draw their energy from meeting with others and tend to find that conversations help their thinking. Introverts draw energy from alone time and like to think solo before putting forward an idea.
Introverts might have secretly, or openly, found their own, remote space more energising than a noisy open-plan office. Extraverts seek social time to boost energy and have found savvy ways to recreate those watercooler moments with a virtual tea or coffee break and have lifted others’ morale at the same time. Equally, it also has to be OK for introverts to say ‘no thanks’ to some of the well-intentioned reach-outs, in order to stay sane and get things done. It’s about a balance and about understanding we are all wired differently.
Balancing the organisational culture
I’ve been speaking at several online events about the impact of Covid recently. I’ve heard quite a few discussions about remote working meaning a loss of mentoring, less transmission of culture, especially for new hires.
It’s true. Though it does occur to me that there’s a kind of anarchic opportunity in that too. At a distance, the mentoring might be reduced, but also the transmission of bias could also be less direct. At least superficially.
It can be all too easy in a workplace with a strong corporate culture to take on the belief that gravitas and leadership look only one way, the way they have always looked. Now, our dispersed offices could provide a chance to step back and question some of our expectations and limitations.
However, there might also be a danger that we end up curating our experience of work culture too much (by choosing which Zoom / Teams / Skype / Webex huddles we’re part of), so our remote worlds become an echo chamber that’s more likely to reinforce our own biases. Perhaps even more so than hearing blinkered views in an office.
So while we have a chance to consider from a distance, to look at things differently, it’s also important to reach out, look for those mentors with different perspectives, expertise and experiences to prevent us from getting stuck in silos. Balance, again.
US poet Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967) wrote: “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud”. This Work-Life Week, honour your eagle. Ask yourself again what is it that makes you stretch your wings and soar? Can you have that now, or at least a version of it, even our strange times? What would that mean at work? At home?
Then feed your hippo. Not necessarily with more cake (Yeah, it’s a hazard, isn’t it?) but with some slow, no-pressure moments that help you feel relaxed, and comfortable in your own skin. Music, humour, meeting smiling eyes above a mask for a moment, gentle exercise or stretching, a walk in a green space, if possible, where you pause to really look at a leaf for a moment.
We live in fast-changing times, and sometimes, we need to pause to adjust. But in these times, perhaps we see each other, and ourselves, a bit more clearly. And hopefully, with a little more balance.
Jennifer Liston-Smith is Head of Thought Leadership for Bright Horizons.
For over 20 years, Jennifer has been relentless in pursuit of innovation, identifying, defining and sharing best practice and ‘next practice’ for leading global employers in flexible working, family-friendly and wellbeing programmes, closing the gender pay gap and promoting gender-inclusive parenting. She is a sought-after speaker, writer, conference moderator and consultant on these topics and more.