My Family Care asks Rebecca: With the increase of flexible working - and the increase in technological advancements - the lines between work and family time can become blurry. Do you successfully keep work inside work hours so you can concentrate on family time, or do you run both in parallel, in successful ways? And if so, how?
Different ends of the scale
In my work as a Leadership and Parent Transition Coach for My Family Care, I spend a lot of time talking to parents (or parents-to-be) about the balance between work and family life, or "work-life balance", as it is commonly known. To me, this term suggests that work time and family time are at opposing ends of a set of scales, and that to have the 'perfect solution' the two must be equal.
I believe, however, that the two need not be perfectly balanced in order for someone to feel they have the right blend - and that the blend can shift from day to day, month to month or even year to year. So I tend to use the word 'blend' rather than 'balance'.
This resonates with me because I am what we might call an 'integrator' rather than a 'separator', meaning that, although my work tends to take place within certain hours, I don't have a problem blurring the line between work and life when I need to.
So, for example, while the children are having a 20 min TV downtime after school, I will check my emails to see if there's anything that I can quickly deal with then and there. But if I can't deal with it quickly, I will leave it until later (mentally putting it into a 'box' so that it doesn't distract me while I'm with the children).
Once I've got them into bed I might finish off a piece of work that I haven't had a chance to do during the time they were at school, or while they were at home after school (like this article, for instance). This is absolutely fine with me - in fact, I find it hard to switch off from work until I know I have done what needs doing that day, at whatever time I can fit it in.
Equally, I think it's good for the children to know that I have important work that needs doing, and that sometimes (but certainly not always) means I have to work when they are around.
Are you a natural separator or integrator?
Those who are natural separators may find this challenging, as there is a risk that the competing demands being placed upon them become overwhelming. They would far rather stay at work until they have finished whatever tasks need doing that day, and then go home, not doing any further work that evening.
There is no right or wrong here. The key is to work out whether you are a natural separator or integrator - reading the above may have given you a gut feel either way - and then work in line with that natural preference.
The challenge is when you are naturally one or the other, but try to work against your natural preference. Professional parents returning to work after a period of parental leave may struggle because, prior to having a child, they worked as separators. Work took priority to social life, but that's just how it was.
After having children, it's not quite that simple; you may feel driven to integrate because your child is an equal (or greater) priority to your career, and yet - certainly in the first few months back - your brain hasn't adapted to having a different work style. Your colleagues may not have done either - both of these may lead you to feel guilty and in constant conflict, behaving as a separator when you really want to be an integrator.
You may also find that if you are returning to work on a part-time basis, you want to try and separate on your non-working days (prioritising time with your child) but find that work demands lead you to integrate more than you wish to.
Prioritising is key
Whichever you are, there are key points to remember: being strict about your priority list will help you overcome the urge to either check your emails when you should really be spending time with your children (integrators); or spend all evening at work when you really could be at home bathing the children (separators).
If you are an integrator, make sure you communicate clearly with family and colleagues so that they know what you are doing when (and therefore what they can expect from you). If you are a separator, think about how best you can put up strong boundaries so that one doesn't blend into the other.
As a final note on this subject, I thought it might be helpful to list out some pointers that I was discussing with a coachee recently. She had returned to work 3 days a week but was finding the attempts at work-life balance somewhat overwhelming:
- Make sure you know what your natural style is and what will enable you to have the career you want in a sustainable and authentic way - if you can't do this in a way that works for you, it's unlikely to last; but also balance the needs of the business, being realistic about them: flexible working is about give and take;
- Communicate how you are planning to approach this to your manager, explaining when you are available, and when you aren't;
- If you are working part-time, then on the day before a non-work day, book time to meet with the people you are working with to:
- Remind them that you are not working the next day,
- Talk through any concerns or issues they might have and anything you think may come up on the next day,
- If you are willing to be a bit of an integrator/accept this may be part of your role, remind them how best to contact you if required; e.g. if they have a query that can't wait until you are back in the office, ring your personal mobile rather than email;
- If you have a PA, remind them that you are not working the next day and ask that they keep an eye on emails, forwarding on to others if necessary;
- Book a time slot for the day you are back in the office to catch up with those you are working with;
- If you are a separator, put your work phone/Blackberry away at home on a non-work day so you are not tempted to look at it (but making sure you have a mobile on you that you can be called on if necessary, if this is an expected part of your role and something you are ok with). Or you might like to set yourself a time slot (e.g. lunchtime if baby is sleeping?) when you do check emails;
- If asked to do something urgently/in a way that would impact on your time off, consider pushing back/querying the deadline - e.g. "I will get back to you on x day". If there is still push back, at least then you will know it is really urgent and not an artificial deadline.
Rebecca Ford-Johnson, Leadership and Parent Transition Coach