As I stated in my original post “168 Hours For The Rest of Us“, this series is intended for those of us not in management, or not very high up in the corporate chain. We still have work/life demands but don’t have the money or flexibility of CEOs and executives.
Rather a list of tips about work/life balance, I want to focus on certain crucial aspects of time management — in this case, work. For most of us, work consumes a large part of our week. At minimum per week, it’s 45 hours per week (including lunch hour), plus commuting time.
The assumption is that the “rest of us” do not work for companies that offer the average employee any flex-time, work-at-home arrangements or job-sharing, at least not on an official basis. When you work in a more traditional company with typical work hours, it’s much harder to enjoy a healthy work/life balance and to find time for your non-work needs.
The most important advice I can offer is to make yourself valuable to your immediate supervisor (and company). You do not have to be a superstar employee, which often entails overtime, but you do have to be reliable and generally make your boss’s life easier. You have to meet all reasonable deadlines and not drop the ball. You can’t call in sick too often, unless you’re really sick of course. Basically, you must figure out what makes your boss happy. This varies a lot depending on your boss’s managerial style, as well as the company culture. I’m not saying this is easy but if you figure this out, you and your boss will be much happier. If you have a hard time figuring this out, look at your colleagues. Even if your boss doesn’t play favorites, there’s always at least one person who seems to enjoy a little autonomy. Watch and learn from this person. Here are some additional tips or what works for me.
The smarter ones also take care to cultivate a good work reputation by taking on projects that have visibility or prestige outside their departments. That way, they still may have job security in the event their boss falls out of favor or leaves the company. Note: I’m often not one of the smart ones, but I have seen this work time and time again.
I understand that there are many who are unhappy at their job and it’s all too easy to feel trapped. I was in that kind of situation for about two years. A new boss entered the picture and we did not hit it off to say the least. While I enjoyed a degree of flexibility given my track record at the company, it became harder to leave work early when necessary or to call in sick without suspicion. The best thing I ever did was to find a better job with a boss that better appreciated my skills and temperment. Having said this, it is often necessary to continually manage your job reputation and that is tiring for many, including myself.
Another important variable are your colleagues. I’ve been fortunate to be situations where all of us pull our weight and watch each other’s back. We are all punctual and conscientious about taking time for doctor appointments etc.. When you are in a good team environment, the boss is even more likely to relax and trust everyone. If there’s one “bad apple” on the team, say someone who’s chronically late, the boss may take away privileges or become more of a micro-manager.
You must manage your relationships with colleagues as well as with your boss. You don’t have to become best friends but you should try to set a good example for other co-workers, especially new ones. Do your best to help new colleagues fit in so that they can work smarter. Help them find the right resources. Set an example in everything you do from how you run meetings to taking your lunch to minimizing office distractions.
Recently, a new person joined our department and her work ethic threatened to make the rest of us look like slackers, even though we’re not. She saw nothing wrong with working late or skipping lunch and even “bragged” about working 10+ hours at her last job. I understood that she had a lot to prove but I also knew that I should help her work smarter and fit into our more relaxed company culture. When I saw her eating at her desk again, I mentioned a magazine article that touted the benefits of a work break — to clear your head, reduce mistakes and recharge yourself, etc.. After that, on occasion, I would express concern that she had skipped lunch. Eventually she started taking lunch breaks (on most days) and leaving on time. While much of her changed attitude had to do with finding her groove at her new job, I’m 100% sure that if the rest of us routinely skipped lunch and worked late, she would have mimicked that, too, in order to look “good” to the boss.
If you are able to create a good work environment via your relationship with your boss and co-workers, you can earn some degree of flexibility even without having the perks of management.
In every situation where I have earned my boss’s trust, I also enjoyed greater autonomy in terms of setting my work schedule. I can’t choose to come in at 10 a.m. but I changed my morning arrival time to avoid traffic. Right now this works well for me because I get home for dinner every night. If I needed to adjust my schedule, my boss is likely to allow it. My lunch hour is similarly flexible. I have my regular lunch hour but I can take it later or earlier if needed. Because I always make sure I do my job well, I can also occasionally take a longer lunch without consequences. This has allowed me to do my household / grocery shopping, get my hair cut, get oil changes, and take care of a host of errands during the weekday instead of letting these clog up my valuable weekend hours.
Your company’s internet policy may vary and I don’t recommend surfing the web over work. However, I admit to taking internet mini-breaks.* This lets me refresh my mind a bit and also take care of chores, including paying bills, refilling prescriptions, doing research on everything from cars to cable/TV packages, and shopping for self or others. I can do this because my boss doesn’t feel the need to watch over my shoulder. Note: Even if your company has strict online policies, you can do a lot on your own smartphone, tablet or laptop.
Some people may do everything right and just not have the kind of boss who trusts his/her employees. A friend of mine works for a micro-manager and despite her best efforts, neither she nor any other employee has yet to win the boss’s trust. However, even in that situation, my friend is probably still considered one of the more trusted employees and has a small degree of flexibility over the others.
To sum it up, your work situation is one of the most important factor in terms of work/life balance. If you can “steal time” during your work hours, you can gain back time for more enjoyable weekends. The other side of the coin is family, to be addressed next!
* I am sure someone will comment that it is abuse to use company computer for personal stuff. I’m just not sure how I could manage my life if I did zero personal stuff online during work hours.
Also, check out author Laura Vanderkam’s blog…her book “168 Hours” inspired this series.