A Precarious Balance

I’ve been thinking a lot again about work/life balance because of Working Mother magazine.  A recent issue profiled an MD, a supervisor and a high-power executive at a tech company about their work-life struggles.  In general all their articles profile women in higher-income brackets, probably due to the demographics of their readers and the general assumption is that if these women can do it, people with more regular schedules can, too. 

While I enjoy reading about these high-powered women and also about freelance WOHM moms, I feel that the majority of media ignores those truly in the middle-class (and lower middle-class).   We don’t enjoy the kind of flexibility that higher-powered women enjoy and we can’t delegate away chores like those with financial advantages. 

At my company, those in manager positions and above enjoy a higher autonomy.   They don’t have to ask permission to work from home.  They also have the money for nanny and cleaning help, something that my household has paid for but at a great sacrifice (and only temporarily).   They can still enjoy many luxuries like massages, travel and dining out.  True, they have greater responsibilities, too, and they’ve earned it.  But their solutions often aren’t applicable to those those in lower income brackets.  In other words, they can buy some balance while many people don’t have that same privilege.

That’s why I’m sharing my thoughts now, as a non-manager making a middle-class salary in a high cost of living area.  Like many average working people, I don’t enjoy the flexibility of working from home or part-time hours, both of which I truly crave, so I make the best of my situation.  Before I delve into my tips, I must say that we manage OK because my husband does have a flexible schedule and we have nearby parental help.   The third part of the equation is flexibility at work, something that is within my control to a degree.  

  1. Earn Your Stripes:  What do I mean by this? I mean that before having kids, you should build a solid work reputation and prove your value to your boss, so that he/she trusts you to do your job without constant monitoring.  If your boss values you, there is a greater forgiveness factor when you have kids and your finely balanced life is thrown off-kilter.  There’s a chance that you’ll manage to keep your career almost on track or entirely on track if you’re a true superstar and that you’ll still get just enough family time to keep sane and happy.   I have managed to “earn my stripes” so to speak at my current company and with my current boss. Although I am sure that he’s not happy about my increased absences, he and my co-workers have been super supportive because I still finish my projects on-time.  Plus,  I have a reputation for being efficient, productive and supportive of others. 
  2. Learn to read your boss: Every boss is different. I’ve had bosses who valued creativity; one who valued initiative; another that valued anticipating his/her needs.  If you can make yourself invaluable in ways that matter most to your boss, you’ll be more appreciated.   This sounds like simple advice but I’ve seen many employees who focus mostly on what they want to do, without thinking about company goals or what makes their boss’s life easier.
  3. Take certain projects off your boss’s plate:  With Tip #2 in mind, If you have a strong skill where your boss is lacking, try taking that project off his/her plate.  For example if your boss hates to write, offer to do more writing-related projects. Same for reporting or spreadsheets or presentations.  Ideally your strengths are his/her weaknesses.
  4. Take longer lunches:  Because I’m a trusted team member, my boss doesn’t watch my comings and goings like a hawk.  I appreciate this and I don’t take advantage.  On most days, I actually take shorter lunches and when it’s super busy, I eat at my desk.  However, if it’s a slow day, I can run errands and eat lunch in a little over an hour. Having that flexibility to get bigger chores out of the way allows me to have more free time during non-work hours.
  5. Just plain dumb luck:  You can work really hard but your boss just thinks that everyone is a robot and can put in 110% with no risk of burn-out.  I’ve been fortunate to have many good bosses.  I’ve also been “fortunate” that for various reasons, my co-workers have had work/balance issues, too, so that the spotlight isn’t on me, the dreaded working mom of young kids (!).

I’m glad that I have this flexibility and while my life often feels unbalanced, this flexibility allows me to plow forward and enjoy parenthood without guilt. 

Here are more interesting thoughts on the work/life balance:

http://thehappiestmom.com/2009/05/balance-vs-flexibility/

http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2012/02/no-ones-gonna-stop-me-from-having-it.html

Laura  Vanderkam wrote a book about time management and while I haven’t read it, I was struck by the negative reviews on Amazon.com — basically her advice was mostly applicable to those with money and only certain types of careers like writing:  http://www.amazon.com/168-Hours-Have-More-Think/dp/B0043RT8EU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1329869680&sr=8-1

How do you manage the work/life balance? Do you have flexibility? I’m especially curious to hear from those in non-management level jobs who don’t have the funds to delegate away chores and errands!

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11 responses to “A Precarious Balance

  1. I have “manager” in my title, but it’s projects–not people.

    Here’s the situation I face: I had earned my stripes. And while I was on maternity leave, my boss (and key advocate) left. Right after I came back, her boss (and another of my mentors) left. We’ve had a sweeping leadership overhaul, and at the moment I’m feeling like I can’t earn my stripes with this crowd–and frankly, I don’t want to. So I’m looking for another job, and hopefully it won’t take too much longer. Certainly plenty of my co-workers have found work elsewhere recently!

    • TS — that is a tough and unfortunate situation. I’ve been in your shoes before, too, and it’s tough because it feels like all your hard work no longer pays off. I have noticed that a lot of people are finding new jobs right now. Best of luck!

  2. I have a lot of flexibility. My husband also takes up a lot of the slack, to the detriment of his own career. Also we live in squalor and I’m fine with that.

  3. Sometimes it is hard but it is something that we have to do…we have 2 teens and the eldest with be off to uni next year.They both work weekend jobs…so we are fitting in 4 work timetables and hubby works shift work…..so the calendar and diary are very well used. My bosses are ok with me taking time off here and there for kids appointments and leaving a bit earlier if I need to. I can take time off without pay or use leave.When I started I asked if I could work to suits the kids school bus times and they said yes….one main reason why I took the job. I am allowed to make personal calls from work…so try to make all appointments, arrange schedules, pay bills from work etc. It is a real balance…my family is great, we all work together as a team and manage. I try to run errands whilst at work when I can. At home we just need to be very organised….washing, meals, lunches, housework it is all very streamlined and luckily the wheels don’t fall of the wagon too often.

    • Good points. I also am able to use my work time to pay bills and other online tasks, from researching stuff to buy, shopping, checking personal emails, etc.. All that helps me lighten my load on weekends!

  4. I agree with you that the work-life balance issues of people who aren’t in management are often overlooked in the media. It seems that they are all focused on people like me (I’m a middle manager, running a group, but still reporting to someone else)- or even people like Sheryl Sandberg- when the reality is that the problems can be even harder to manage at lower income levels.

    Maybe part of this is because we all assume that people in higher level jobs or making more money must be working more hours than everyone else- but I definitely don’t think that is true.

    I’ve written a lot about work-life balance, so I won’t repeat all that here.

    But I will say, I think your point about flexibility is very important. As a manager I cannot imagine NOT allowing someone to have flexible hours. Or work from home some times, as long as they can do so effectively. I have absolutely no idea how long my employees take for lunch. I only know when they come in and when they leave because we work as a team and it would be hard not to know that- I don’t really care, within reason.

    I have that attitude because it is the decent thing to do. But also because it makes good managerial sense. Study after study has shown that employees given flexibility and autonomy at work are less likely to quit. And I really don’t want my employees to quit! Hiring a new one is hard.

    You’ve got some really good advice, and some of it (like earning your stripes) is applicable to my level, too. I have a reputation for being efficient at work, and that is very important for my work-life balance. Of course, I have to keep earning that reputation!

    I’ve had a fair amount of dumb luck, too, but don’t undersell your strengths. A lot of what you see as “luck” may be the natural result of the fact that you’re really good at your job.

    Oh, and I don’t think Laura’s book is specific to jobs like writer, or even to high incomes (although, since I have a relatively high income, I ‘m not the best person to judge that). I suspect some of the negative response is because she delivers the message that we need to take ownership of our own time and manage it ourselves, and some people prefer to think that their problems are beyond their control. Anyway, I’ve read the book- look on my blog for the “life reorg” label to see my thoughts.

  5. Cloud – Thanks for stopping by. Your series of posts on this topic always gets me thinking and I like reading the comments, too. I’m going to take another look at Laura’s book as time management is definitely interesting to me.

    I work harder and take more project ownership when I work for managers who give me autonomy and who treat me and my co-workers like responsible adults, not children.

  6. Definitely to your list.

    I’ve aimed for growing at least to the manager level specifically because I wanted a higher certainty of the flexibility and autonomy without having to ask for it before I take on the role of being a mother (I’ve worked in a very unfriendly to families environment before) if that’s what I was going to do because I didn’t want to deal with the balancing act that is *hard enough* without the BS of catching the side-eye from bosses or colleagues making assumptions about pulling your weight during a growing period, but it’s taken years to get there and I’m still not quite there.

    But before that, any trust and respect I earned along the way was due to #1-3. And for a long time, #5 wasn’t in my favor until I found a place that was better. Just part of the process of being in the right place at the right time. Emphasis on the right place. With the right people.

    And I don’t have anyone who has asked for a lot more flexibility and balance for family reasons yet but we find ways to be as flexible as we can as long as people are performing to the best of their abilities.

  7. P.S. At this level, I only have the autonomy in decision-making but most definitely not the funds to hire on help. So that’s still a challenge to negotiate. I don’t, however, use work time to manage anything personal as that’s always felt squicky to me, so that might be something I have to start doing as time gets even more precious.

    • I absolutely mix personal stuff with work and I think most people do, including my boss and my boss’s boss.* I don’t really think it’s “squicky” because most work places have some downtime and people can’t be “on” every single hour. As long as this doesn’t interfere with my work quality, I think it’s ok. I try to be discreet and efficient though. I limit personal calls and I usually only do a quick call to make a doctor appt. I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, although I will check personal emails and browse websites/blogs. I do online shopping but again I stick to a list and only browse the sales section; if more involved research on a tech purchase is required, I do it at home or lunch hour. I pay bills online and may print out online coupons but I do those pretty quickly. I do this because I limit tech time on weekends.

      On the tech front, I think many managers and companies frown on the internet usage and some try to block it but I think that most employees have enough work responsibilities that if Facebook and web browsing interfere with work, it will get noticed eventually! People will find ways to “waste” time with or without the internet.

      * After I wrote this, I realize that no, not really. While my boss (and his boss) probably do have downtime, they have stay-at-home spouses, nannies and cleaning ladies. They can afford it! Plus, the VPs have secretaries who do take care of personal needs, too. They’re not concerning themselves with running to drycleaners, clipping coupons or many more mundane errands!

  8. Think of the majority of workers…in factories, supermarkets, banks, hospitals etc who have no flexibility at all….Your shift start at this time…like it or not…this is your roster….like it or not….no personal calls/errands/internet etc….your lunch break is at a said time daily and is timed. Any flexibility that we enjoy or earn is a bonus. I am so thankful that my work hours fit into my children’s school hours….to me that is worth more than dollars.

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