Work/life balance has been a popular topic among both my professional and personal network — and now that everyone who possibly can should work from home during the pandemic, it seems, for many, impossible to have any balance.
Most people have gone through a series of emotions and dived into survival mode. Some have thought about finding solutions that will enable them to weather the current storm, but also to continue in the “new world”. I have a strong feeling that the current situation will change us for good and we will never entirely go back to what was before.
Mindsets, ways of working, social connections, survival instincts, and much more — they have all changed and will not be fully reversed. And we should welcome some of the change. So how do we survive in this new world and balance our lives with social distancing and often having our children at home? As a working, single parent of toddler twins, I am constantly questioned on the subject.
I have been working in consulting for a long time and was accustomed to being available and working all hours of the day or night. I would fly to the other side of the world at the drop of a hat, respond to client queries in the middle of the night and on bank holidays, have endless client lunches and dinners, and spend more time in airport lounges than I ever did in my own living room. Since I had no family in the UK or a particularly meaningful personal life, I was happy to blend my work character into my private personality.
It happens all the time, and eventually, like everyone else, I started burning out, losing focus and productivity and feeling exhausted most of the time. It was time for a change. After months of contemplating my options, I took time off work, completely reassessed my life, was lucky enough to start a family, and, even against all odds, had an opportunity to return to consulting — but not to any of my old ways of working. At Theta we do things differently.
Sprinters cannot sustain their performance in business or personal life. We all have to leave time for recovery and have a solid foundation of positive enforcement. Most people need to recharge and replan at some point in their lives, but it doesn’t mean we have to stop working hard — many occupations and aspirations do require a lot of time and effort, and right now most people cannot afford to take time off work.
For quite some time now, I have found it most beneficial to reboot my mindset and focus on one thing at the time. Ditch multitasking, focus on any given task one at a time, and give it all you have. Then move on and find a way of counterbalancing the energy you’ve just put into the previous task, recharge, and reboot.
Allow time in your diary to focus on anything that is important outside work and forget work in those moments. I still do that in this new world — after some careful planning prioritising the needs and routines of my children, myself, my extended family, my employment, and my immediate social network, I have come up with a timetable for my availability.
My employer has accepted the times of the day I can fully focus on work, flexing my hours throughout the week. Most slots of my day I focus on my kids with a variety of activities and give them my sole attention because they should be least impacted by conflicting activities or priorities. Other times of the day, I work systematically or give my attention to my parents, friends, and neighbours. I have found new ways of connecting socially, and every evening I have at least one hour to recharge. Even if it is just to sit in silence and watch paint dry, I’ll switch off from everything before going to bed.
I appreciate this approach will not work for everyone, but change is constant in our lives, and much of the focus has always been on how employees have to adapt to change. Less consideration has been given to meaningful planning on how employers should proactively change to meet the demands of the ever-changing circumstances of the diversified workforce, something that is now more important than ever. It is simply not enough to offer static-state work/life balance — we have to drive counterbalance so that employees have options to focus on one task at a time and recharge the energy they spent on it. The employers that differentiate themselves from the rest will offer an employer-led way of working smarter. So let’s take a minute to think how employers can promote and support workers to be their most valuable asset.
Give your employees trust and credit. Do not track their every move, but pay attention to their achievements and merit. Be patient when they are working in the background, let them focus and plan their own way of navigating through home-office arrangements and children, and remember not every day is extraordinary and success requires a lot of work. Offer them plenty of opportunities to connect but leave them to it when they need it.
Connect, talk, and be interested. Please always remember that your employee does have a private personality and life. It does not need to be discussed in every detail, but you need to be aware of and acknowledge their specific circumstances. Say “thank you” and “please”, smile (yes, even on the phone and behind a mask), and connect on a personal level — good manners and positive energy will drive performance. This is not about funky video team-building exercises, but a genuine desire for your employees to manage their lives in a holistic way and maintain their mental health. Pick up the phone, send that message, set up that video call, ask them how they are coping, applaud the work they do, and don’t just ask if they need any additional support — offer it before they ask.
Let your employees have true flexibility even if it is not convenient. Great people will not exploit the circumstances but will go to extraordinary lengths to make things work when the circumstances require their flexibility. This truly is the time to be an extraordinary employer — your staff will not forget. Lead by example; do not wait to see what others do.
Enable working from home in a supported way. Everybody works in different ways and needs an opportunity to focus on what is at hand (regardless of what it is). Good managers can connect with their employees in various ways by offering multiple opportunities for connecting for those who typically thrive in a more social environment and email updates and weekly catch-ups for others.
Give your staff time off and flexibility. Whether it is giving them flexible working arrangements, a few days off when they’ve been working overtime, or letting them have longer holidays than is usually accepted, give your employees an opportunity to switch off. If your employee wants to have some unpaid time off to adjust to this new world, keep their job safe.
These are just some of the examples of an employer-enabled way of smarter working that will allow your employees to counterbalance their working and personal life. Support them in this extraordinary journey and incorporate all the positives into your business as usual during and after the crisis. We are all different, and good employers will take the time to get to know their staff and tailor their employment to fit around their specific circumstances, build individual relationships with them, and empower them. This will lead to longer-term employment, increased positive energy, and thus greater productivity for your company and the economy.
When our lives are counterbalanced, we will have incredible highs of focus and achievement, but also moments of fully recharging in solitude, with our loved ones, or in our hobbies. Much of our lives are now within the four walls of our homes, but the same principles still apply. Counterbalance is not a static state and requires constant flexibility, but it will give you a sense of living your life to the fullest whether at home or at work — or now both at the same time.
— Natasha Sirén, ACMA, CGMA, is a senior manager at Theta Financial Reporting. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe, an FM magazine senior editor, at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.