Flexible working is at the heart of the Fathers Network Scotland mission – so in National Work Life Balance Week we decided to examine how we walk the talk in practice. Here SAM PRINGLE, FNS head of research, shares a revelation which brought less stress and more fulfilment to her working week…
A FEW years ago I had the opportunity to meet a Professor Ellen Kossek, author of The CEO of Me and an expert on work-life balance. On a visit from the US she spoke with such enthusiasm and knowledge that I went home feeling determined and empowered to improve how I manage my work and family lives.
On one level, I already knew that I am what Kossek calls an “integrator”: for example, when I am working from home I will transition from hanging up the washing to a phone call with a client without thinking about it. If the phone goes and it’s my family I answer it, and at night after the children have gone to bed I reply to work emails.
What was more revolutionary for me was the invitation simply to accept that this is how I get things done – that there is nothing wrong with this, or indeed any of the other styles of work life balance, which include separator, work first, family first and cycling between these styles. Some of us have much stronger work-life boundaries than others, but that in itself is neither good nor bad – it’s how empowered we feel to manage them which counts.
MESSY BUT IN CONTROL
I used to think I was terrible at managing boundaries - that my life was “messy”. In some sense that is true but this is what is natural for me and I now see that I actually manage the mess well! Work is part of me and I don’t want to separate out time or place from my family.
That’s not to say that sometimes I have to focus on one thing for a longer period of time. I can do that but if you stuck me in an office for 10 hours a day to only focus on work – well I would shrivel up and become very unproductive. I am what Google call a work slicer and there are more of us coming to light with the wonderful technology to support people like me.
So it was a surprise for me to learn that despite my tendency to mix or integrate work and family, I have control over these boundaries. I don’t just give in to work disturbing my weekends - but I sometimes choose to work over the weekend, just as I am choosing to write this article while I am at the hair dressers! It has been the most empowering insight that I have the autonomy to do this.
WORK THAT WORKS FOR ME
What I also recognise is that I can work like this is because I have organised my work to work for me. So I work an hourly rate not daily rate. This means that I don’t have to feel guilty if I attend to personal emails during my working day. I don’t change my work for this time. I have slots where I focus on work and where I focus on my personal stuff.
This has been really important for me around my values. I get involved with a number of community projects including my children’s playground - and I also chair ParentSpark, which brings empowering and inspiring workshops and talks to parents. These volunteer roles have to be flexible. It also means I can be truly myself.
In the language of the WorkLife questionnaire, I am defined as family focused, rather than work focused, dual focused or other focused. Though fiercely ambitious I also associate strongly with my role as a mum. This was a shock when I had a family. It’s also the reason why I changed role after a career break. If I think I can make a difference for my family as a result of working, then I am even more motivated to work hard.
It also means that work falls into second place if there is ever a competition between the two. It’s my trump card. So I feel I know where my priorities lie and if work doesn’t work for my family then it won’t get done. This has been really important for me to find an organisation and colleagues that get this. So it’s no surprise that the work that I do supports families – WIN WIN!
This may sound hunky dory but it’s not always that way. I often work long days as I want to pick up the children from school and finish my work commitments, so I often work in the evening. I have learnt I can only do this a couple of nights a week, othewise a) my husband thinks I love my computer more than him, and/or b) I am exhausted! Probably once every two weeks I go to bed at 8pm and sleep for 12 hours.
All this transitioning form role to another and long days means I can get run down. I therefore pencil in “me-time” religiously (now!): I have a massage once a month, I do Pilates weekly and I meditate to keep up my energy up. I also get energy from friends so I will have time away from the family a couple of times a year. It's usually 2-3 days but I feel amazing when I come back (and I miss them terribly when I am away).
I also have regular catch up with friends every few weeks to give me a boost. If I don’t do this I am grumpy and feel fuzzy in my head. I don’t have clarity of thought and this really affects my performance at work and at home.
HOW OTHERS SEE ME
Lastly there are the issues of how other people see me. I think most people would say I am always in a hurry. My husband might say I am constantly tired. I find it hard to find time to finish tasks without working late. So I have to remind myself to communicate well at home and at work about what is happening for me, so that I can give the things that need my attention more time.
My husband would say that after the children, work, friends and the dog he gets what is left over. He’s right and I need to put more time aside for him.
So like everyone else I know, my work-family balance is a work in progress! But knowing and accepting that mixing my two worlds is not wrong, but simply my style, has really liberated me to take charge and share this life-changing tool with others in my coaching work.
So I’m an integrator with high control of my boundaries. How about you?
SAM PRINGLE is Head of Research for Fathers Network Scotland and on the steering group for Family Friendly Working Scotland. For more information on Sam and the rest of the FNS Team, check click here.