Tackling Three Key Issues In Balancing Work And Life

As it becomes more acceptable in the work environment for employees to space and time shifting, workers are finding a tremendous amount of flexibility in defining where, when and how they work. There is a dark side to this flexibility and that comes in the form of the blending of boundaries between one’s work and one’s life.  While technology enables us to receive emails any hour of the day, wherever we are — workers are faced with the challenge of being always on.  While the mobile worker has contributed to historically high record levels of productivity, this productivity has its limits.

Assuming we agree that with the blending of work and life together, certain new stresses are arising in the workplace and at home that influence both job and life satisfaction and can be detrimental to both.  Let’s address certain ways that workers and employers are addressing these issues.  I suggest we address:

  • channels of communication
  • building/raising a family
  • job security

Channels of communication

The conflict

Wifi, 3G and the Blackberry have all enabled us to be always-on and always accessible. Expectations for quick response and quick resolution has made its impact felt both within organizations as well as with partner firms and customer service.  It’s created an interesting conundrum: as we become quicker communicators, we’re expected to perform at least as well in all future communications.

I recently worked in an organization that really was a new type of organization.  We employed almost 50 people, all of whom worked at home.  Many were work-at-home mothers while others just liked the flexbility of running their own show.  No clocks were punched and we could determine our own hours as long as the work expected of us was completed with quality and on time.  While clock-punching is no longer the norm, an interesting evolution is taking place in “face time”, or the need to put in a lot of time working just to show everyone else that you’re committed to working hard.  While we couldn’t stop over at a colleague’s cube to check on one another, we were monitoring each other via email correspondence or IM activity.  It wasn’t uncommon that we were sending messages to one another at 3 am (OK, it was a startup).

The result

People were very strung out and their work and personal lives began to suffer.  I realive now, in retrospect, that these problems could have been mitigated by laying out the ground rules at the management level. Instead, we were performing this sick type of game theory.  Well, Bill responded last night to my question at 2:30; so, the fact that he’s not responding tonight means he is either ignoring me or hasn’t done what was expected of him.

The solution

Expectations of employees could have been spelled out better. How frequently do we expect you to check your email?  If something is urgent, how quickly should you turn to the phone?  And given that our schedules were all different (I drove my kids to school while another VP picked his kids up), do I need to be reachable during that family time?  These were (and continue to be) sources of stress for management and for employees.  It’s a shame — a simple communication policy could help address all these issues. This policy should address expectations at every level, how communications should be used, and define why it’s important to provide breathing room in a wall-less office.

GTD theory and practice help fill-in the much needed issue of managing communication but for the mobile worker, these issues must be addressed top-down by management, otherwise unneeded stress and passive-aggressive behavior follows suit.

Building/Raising a Family

The conflict

While it used to affect only women, it’s now an issue felt across genders as men are taking on more and more responsibility in the home.  As a father of 5 children, this is an issue I feel acutely as I try to build my business and simultaneously continue to strive to be a better father to my children and husband to my wife.  The problem is that choosing a career in general and certain career paths in particular requires time, energy and emotional commitments that take away from the greater life issues.  Balancing is not static but rather on ongoing juggling of both family demands and work requirements.

The result

I didn’t see my father very much when I was a child.  His career path, medicine, entailed enough of a time commitment that he had very little left to share with his family.   Professions (I can’t speak about medicine) have become less monolithic and more flexible in how practitioners choose to practice their qualifications. This flexibility has meant that women and men can ultimately attempt to have it all — a career and a home life.  The problems come in different varieties but once up and running, it’s a daily battle between staff meetings and parent-teacher meetings, between face time and family time.

The solution

While no complete solution can exist as time spent away from your family is a zero-sum game in the early days of family building.  It just means less of you to go around.  But things are changing — Web 2.0 and more specifically, Sales 2.0 are enabling professionals to carve out their own quasi-professions.   Companies should consider hiring more and more not-full time employees with clear expectations of the amount and quality of work that they’re looking for from their staff.  Whether it means working on a project basis or just a few hours every day, companies become more limber as they can pay-as-they-go in terms of time from their people.  It also requires that today’s worker become more modular in terms of jobs.  The days of working for IBM for life are gone and it’s important to understand the new rules.  Companies should have an understanding of what each one of their employees is motivated by and work to make it happen.

Job security

The conflict

My father and father-in-law did the same thing for 30 years.  My makeup is different and from what I know about my peers, so is theirs.   I’m not looking for that much fidelity from firms that pay me and I’m more in tune to looking out for myself.  Whether it’s writing, consulting or marketing my content, I don’t have a whole lot of security in terms of my gig.  Yet, I’m comfortable with this form of risk as it gives me more flexibility to live the type of life that encompasses engaging work and family time.  Workers and those who employ them wll need to balance security and independence as workers themselves deal with these tough issues.

The result

Issues surrounding pay and health insurance are just the tip of the iceberg.  Firms need to have dependable staff and workers need dependable pay.  What’s happened is the beginning of a large movement away from firms to becoming independent contractors.  These millions of mobile minions have begun to define “career” differently.  The firms who currently contract my work understand this paradigm and have built-in flexibility to work with me on an outsourced basis.  I’m not a liability on their balance sheet and provide dependable work when they bring it to me.  It’s built on a relationship and seems to work well for both parties.

I’m lucky though.  I live in a country (Israel) that has socialized its medical services so I don’t need to attach myself to a given employer just for the benefits.  This frees me up to work with as many firms as I can handle.  That said, the mobile workforce has to be able to live with uncertainty: visibility in most project pipelines is pretty poor and it requires a lot of work to be able to find new work.  While companies employing this mobile model should be able to manage having slimmer staff, there are other firms that need to rely upon “captive” staff for ensuring work get done on schedule and IP stay internal to the firm.  Therein lies the rub.  How companies can work to untether some staff and yet still have adequate resources and how mobile employees can continue to support their families as at previous levels while also balancing their work/life in their favor.

The solution

Like the solution outlined above in the building/raising family section, the solution for job security requires a new way of addressing staff and work in general. Firms must become more comfortable sourcing staff that is comfortable working outside the confines of the office.  In order to mitigate demand planning issues, these firms should also contract time/projects further out than just immediate need to help both the firm feel comfortable that help is there along the way.  This longer-term planning ensures that independent workers can plan their revenues and time to continue to provide for their families in this new type of arrangement. For example, in my business, I’m still too small to employ an inhouse web designer.   I have a web designer that I’ve worked with for a while and am comfortable with and giveher 5-7 hours of work every month.  I get my needs taken care of and she can bank on these fees and plan other clientele around me.

Summary

There will always be workaholics.  Even those who venture outside the typical corporate infrastructure aspire to greatness in their businesses and in their home lives.  Better planning for this trend enables both contractor and contractee to understand the rules of the game and plan accordingly.  Communication policies and longer-term contractual agreements are just two ways for industry to address these issues.

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