Creating Work-life Balance: It’s in your hands

With the toss of a mortar board, undergrads around the world are turning into young professionals, about to set forth into an exciting world of passions, responsibilities, triumphs and tribulations. In this transition, the age old topic of work-life balance comes up. On campus last week I overhead a recent graduate say, ‘my work does not define me. I want a job that gives me work-life balance.’

I admire that clarity but caution that it is not anyone’s responsibility to give you anything more than your monthly salary and a safe work environment. The power, pardon me, the responsibility to create balance lies not with your employer. If you want it, you have to create it. In my opinion, doing so requires:

  1. An agency reframe – I have no choice I have the power to choose
  2. Self-awareness – I know what I want and will work towards it
  3. An integrative mindset – Work life balance is not an ‘either – or’ dilemma
  4. Credibility – I have the trust of my colleagues to get the job done without working crazy hours

Agency

I have to vs I choose to

Many professionals, especially fresh graduates, believe that they have to work long hours, say yes to everything and be at the mercy of their bosses 24-7.  They act as if they have little power to shape their own day and what happens in and out of the office.  It is for that reason that they blame their bosses every time they keep someone waiting for a dinner appointment, miss an important celebration or fail to be there when their family and friends need them. But they don’t have to. A Friday night email from your boss does not need to be replied to immediately by virtue of who sent it. Having clarity on when task are due together with an honest conversation with your boss about priorities and competing work requests from other stakeholders will help you plan your time without having to work late every Friday night.

Do not get me wrong, I think this willingness to work long hours, jump in and say yes to many new projects and experiences is a great way to learn and accelerate a fledgling career. But don’t make the mistake of viewing these long hours in the spirit of ‘no choice.’ You are a powerful being, if you did not see some benefit of being in this firm working these hours, you would choose the gig economy and the flexibility it brings. But you, presumably, did not.

Instead, view your predicament as a choice you made with your own agency. Is the reason you work long hours because you have made a choice in favour of conscious growth and learning?

Working long hours because you choose to creates a far higher level of motivation and fervour compared to doing so because you feel like you have to. Telling yourself you have no choice simply strips you of a key pillar of intrinsic motivation: autonomy.

Self-Awareness

If we have no awareness of what’s important to us or no clear goals for ourselves then we drift around to the whims and fancies of anyone that gives us direction. If a young professional knows that he wants time to himself, or is committed to getting fit or wants to focus on settling down, then he would find creative ways to achieve and balance his personal and professional goals. If he or she had no goals, then he or she would find himself acquiescing to the increasing demands of authoritative or charismatic bosses. 

Clarity of one’s personal and professional goals is the first step to making better career decisions. For job seekers, it starts with choosing the right firm. Begin the job search by thoroughly researching organisations that interest you. Network, conduct informational interviews and learn about the culture, work-hours and what people are like. Do employees enjoy their work? Do they have time for their personal lives? 

For employees looking for greater balance, consider having an honest conversation with your boss or teammates about what you want, what is sustainable for you and the team. This connects to my earlier point on agency: you can create balance by taking action – i.e. having a conversation with your stakeholders. If the work you do is good and your contributions are valued, your employer will probably look to make the working environment more sustainable and manageable for you rather than risk losing a good employee like you. After all, it is very time consuming and costly to make a good hire.

In my last firm, I started travelling a lot to support a client in Africa. This coincided with the decision my wife and I made to start a family and the recent adoption of a rescue dog that required extra love and attention. I knew I had put in the hours professionally before and now it was time to tilt the balance towards family so I invited my boss for a coffee and I explained to him what was going on in my life. I talked about my commitment to the client, the contributions I was making but also expressed how continuing in this way was going to come at the expense of my family and my personal goals. I then made the request to travel only one week a month but also outlined how I would support the project and the team from Singapore when I was not in South Africa. I made sure that my proposal made business sense and did not negatively impact the project or the resources of our team. 

We adopted Fateh, a lovely Singapore Special from the pound in 2017. Given her history, she needed some extra tender loving care

I knew I had put in the hours professionally before and now it was time to tilt the balance towards family so I invited my boss for a coffee and I explained to him what was going on in my life. I talked about my commitment to the client, the contributions I was making but also expressed how continuing in this way was going to come at the expense of my family and my personal goals. I then made the request to travel only one week a month but also outlined how I would support the project and the team from Singapore when I was not in South Africa. I made sure that my proposal made business sense and did not negatively impact the project or the resources of our team. was nervous about whether my proposal would be accepted or if I would be shown the door instead. Seeing my nervousness, what he said struck a chord. “You’re probably nervous because nobody does this. But, there’s really nothing wrong with siting with your leader and working out a way to give your best to the firm, your clients and your family. If we have the flexibility to make it work, we will because good firms want to keep good people. If we don’t, at least we had an honest conversation and understand each other better.”

Give it a shot – if you have built credibility within the organisation, you may be surprised with some of the creative solutions you and your boss may create together to create a win-win outcome.

Both-And, not Either-Or

I think many people view work-life balance and professional success as a zero-sum game whereby balance comes at the expense of success in an either-or fashion. Taking a page out of Professor Roger Martin’s book on The Opposable Mind, we should approach this dilemma with a ‘both-and’ mindset.

Applying that perspective, I would encourage someone looking for balance to find a way to achieve both balance and success. There are jobs that pay well, demand a lot of you in the 9 to 6 but respect your time outside of it. Within my circle of friends alone, there are young lawyers making partner after 5 years while having two young kids and active involvements outside of work. There are professionals working 4 days a week still being promoted to leadership positions in statutory boards and ministries. There are team leads in MNCs that work two days a week from home while drawing high five figure salaries. I’ve had friends leave demanding and high paying sectors like Investment Banking, Strategy Consulting and Litigation to join other high paying industries like Executive Search with half the stress and double the free time. There are many options out there to achieve professional success, earn a good wage and enjoy work-life balance – one just needs to be committed to finding such options. When you find those opportunities, be prepared to invest some time to pick up the right skills to position yourself as a good addition to those businesses.

Credibility

That all being said, there is one caveat. To create the ‘both-and’ and to have the ability to talk to your boss and have him fight for you to have your balance, it’s important to develop credibility and a unique value proposition that makes you worth fighting for. That comes with honing your skills, building relationships and really creating extra value for the teams and projects you involve yourself in.  The best way to do that in my opinion is the age old saying, ‘under-promise, over deliver’. Always deliver what you promise and then some. The second strategy would be to constantly find gaps to fill outside your job description. If there’s a problem nobody is doing anything about, like a work process issue, or a creaky door or a problem the client is facing and nobody is doing anything about it, make it your job to fix it. And to make your life easier, start with the low hanging fruit. You’re ‘problem solver’ reputation will make you increasingly indispensable and others will work to keep you around longer.

I’m exciting to hear about your approach to creating balance. Do share your thoughts with me via Instagram @jasbirsworkshop. Here’s wishing you professional success and balance.

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