Re-defining your work - life balance

One of the biggest challenges of becoming a dad in the corporate world is the adjustment in redefining your work-life balance. This goes beyond the basic distribution of time spent at work versus at home. It includes the level of health, sleep and overall energy you have to thrive in all the domains that make up your life. 

When returning to work after the birth of a baby, your world has changed. While your colleagues may have more sympathy for you during the periods of sleepless nights, their standards for a high-performing team member probably haven't changed. You may even feel frustration towards yourself for lack of flexibility you face in responding to work demands that you use to pick up with ease.

Tips for achieving balance

  1. Redefine what work looks like
  2. Redefine what life looks like
  3. Flexible working hours
  4. Working from home
  5. Setting clear expectations, and reinforcing them
  6. Building and maintaining trust

1. Redefine what work looks like

The earlier you can let go of  expectations that you will be able to work the same way you did before having a baby, the easier a transition you will have. Think about the total amount of energy and head space you have in any given day as ten $1 coins. Sleep automatically takes out two coins that can't be allocated to any other activity, eg. reducing your sleep to one coin doesn't give you another coin to spend elsewhere as you need a minimum of two to function.  For many people, before a kid they are use to having an additional coin dedicated to maintaining their personal relationship and friendships, and the remaining seven coins to spend in a discretionary way on work, relaxation or fitness.

Once you have a kid, at least one of those coins will be permanently occupied by your child and their needs... keeping them alive, healthy and set up to succeed. You also may find that your relationship with your partner requires a larger investment as your roles and interactions enter new uncharted territory. It's not unusual to suddenly feel like there aren't enough coins to go around. Keeping the coin analogy in mind may be a useful exercise as you sit down and plan your week. Accept that you can only do so much and make sure you are investing your coins in a way that will deliver the best return for you both at work and at home.

If work is most important to you, you may devote your remaining coins to work, but know that it comes at the expense of perhaps family, fitness or friendships. Spending your extra coins in being an active parent -- getting up in the middle of the night, being home for dinner regularly, doing bath time each night etc. means that extra coins won’t be able to be spent on working late or travelling interstate. You may even have to reallocate your coins on a daily basis so that twice a week you need to work late or travel while on other days you are home by 5pm to see your child before he or she goes to bed.

Every coin you have has a benefit and a cost, but the reality is you don’t get more coins, no matter how much you want them. You have to prioritise in a way you never have before. 

2. Redefine what life/work balance looks like for you and your partner with a baby

The next aspect of gaining control of your work-life balance is to define what you want your life with your partner and family to look like outside of work. Home life with your partner is going to look and feel different than it did before.

Between juggling work, increased household chores and the relentless demands of a little person, you're likely to find that one-on-one time with your partner is suddenly restricted to limited and somewhat unpredictable windows of time. The Netflix marathons of old may now actually be a blocker to your relationship if evenings are the best time to see each other. And, if you're favourite past time was going out on the town together, you may need to explore new ways of connecting and having fun when you can't leave the house.

Being purposeful with your time together will help you navigate one of the most stressful periods you will experience as a couple, and a period that will constantly change as inevitable sickness happens, sleep schedules change, work demands change, etc. Sitting down regularly with your partner -- with the same rigour and intention you would have in a work context -- to discuss how you are going and the vision you both have for what your relationship can look like will go a long way to keeping a healthy relationship. Listen to each other’s struggles without judgement or defensiveness to identify what you can do to better support each other (as well as actually following through) without any assumptions as to who should be doing what is an absolute necessity. The reality of having a kid is you are both constantly going to feel tired, overly stretched and under-appreciated.

After being with a child all day, you or your partner may need space from the baby to keep sane. After being at work all day, you may feel like you need zone out time before you can mentally be present at home. After you understand each other’s genuine needs, you can then work together to identify ways to give each other what you need to be more present and make the most of your time together, e.g. agreeing a routine and responsibilities for when you're both at home, or getting off the bus a station or two early and walking the rest you give yourself a little more time to mentally disconnect from a busy day.

Discuss your individual needs together to ensure that you don’t waste your time at home on trivial activities (e.g. watching tv, playing on facebook, playing a gaming device etc.) After being with a child all day, your partner may need space from the baby to keep sane. After being at work all day, you may feel like you need time to decompress before you can mentally be present. Once you understand what each other needs, you can then assess how you currently spend your time together and work out what regular activities may need to altered to support each other better. Like with the coin analogy, quality time together is important but in very short supply, so you need to be deliberate in making sure that time together is actually ‘quality time’ and not just ‘time’. And expect that it will constantly be changing.

3. Flexible working hours

If your job allows for a more flexible approach to working, you may be able to reimagine what your work day looks like. For me, being home each day for dinner, bath and bedtime was one of my ‘dollar coins’ that I decided I wanted to spend each day. But with bedtime being 5pm when I went back to work, and an hour commute door-to-door, I needed to redefine what my workday looked like. This meant leaving work by 3.50pm. I am contracted to complete a 7.5-8hr day (depending on what is agreed with my client at the time), which meant I needed to get agreement with my team that I would start early and finish early each day.

When I mentioned this with my team, they were more than accommodating. It also opened up the conversation with others on the team for them to define how they liked to work. One of my team members had a long commute, so found early morning starts difficult, but preferred to work later into the evening. By having the conversation, we were even able to position this as a benefit to the client- despite having people working different times through the day, they would actually have someone available for a longer period each day using this approach than if we all worked the same 8.30am-6pm hours.

5. Working from home

Flexible working policies will often include an option to work from home. This doesn’t apply to all jobs, but many corporate roles these days do not require you to be physically present in the office to get the job done. Work from home days can be great for reclaiming your work-life balance, but sadly still needs to be executed carefully to silence the skeptics that you are taking an unofficial rostered day off and secretly caring for your kid at the same time. (Do everyone a favour and ensure your kids have care from someone else if you are working from home, otherwise take the day off.)

If you commute to the office, the best part about working from home is that you get time back (e.g. your $1 ‘commuting’ coin) to spend on something else, like morning play time with bub or perhaps even a jog or gym session. There is also the potential to have a more productive day than you would have by being in the office. I find that when I am in the office, my days are too frequently filled with unnecessary meetings and other distractions such as general office noise or general conversations with colleagues about the weekend etc. While these can be nice, I all too frequently get to the end of the day and wonder where the day has gone! If done right, working from home can mean that you have a more productive day, provided that you are self-disciplined enough to not replace those distractions with others around your home. 

Sadly not all workplaces or colleagues are progressive to the extent of fully embracing working from home, and this is often related to people abusing the policy in the past. The key to changing these perceptions is ensuring you are visible to your colleagues back in the office. This essentially means overcompensating when it comes to communication and transparency, e.g.:

  • Sharing your daily diary with your team / colleagues so they can see what you are working on and when you are working on it (including any breaks or scheduled appointments you may need to attend to).
  • Return work you have been completing back to your team / colleagues as soon as it is completed, so others can clearly see the progress you have made throughout the day (even if you don’t think they care).
  • Make sure you are contactable (including ensuring that you reply to texts and emails within ~5 minutes of receiving them) so that you are not perceived as missing in action.
  • If appropriate, send a summary email at the end of the day of what you have completed and any follow up actions required.
  • Check in with your team / superiors regularly throughout the day and be proactive at asking for more work or even help, as you would in the office.
  • Make sure you are coordinated with your team members so that you are as effective and productive when working virtually as you do face to face. Try using apps such as Trello that manage the workflow of activities in your team. Even using simple messaging apps to constantly communicate can help with this coordination, and subconsciously inform your team that you are online and actually working.
  • Avoid affirming the ‘bludger’ stereotype by posting selfies from the beach or at your local cafe on social media.

    4. Set clear expectations, and reinforce them!

    If you are trying to reimagine your working day and work differently from others, you need to remember that your colleagues are not changing their working days, and therefore won’t necessarily remember that you have changed yours! It will inevitably take your colleagues some time to get used to your new hours and ways of working, and you will no doubt continue to receive meeting invites and phone calls outside your new working hours for a period of time until your colleagues get used to your new way of working.

    In order to make your flexible arrangement stick with your colleagues, you will need to be firm in your commitment to your new schedule from day one. This means reinforcing your arrangements by reminding your colleagues of your working hours when scheduling meetings, declining meetings if you I have to and not making exceptions to show that your new arrangements are not flexible.

    One of the worst things you can do when trying to establish your flexible working arrangements is to make special accommodations, particularly early on, as this only reinforces the message that your news way of working can be compromised. If you make exceptions, your colleagues will quickly learn that you are not serious about sticking to your new arrangements and it won’t be long before you are either back to your old hours and ways of working, or working even longer hours (e.g. starting early and finishing at the same time as everyone else). You need to remember that flexible working means that your workplace is flexible in how, where and when you work, not the other way around.

    5. Maintain trust

    To really embed your flexible working arrangements (and perhaps even influence the reshaping of your organisation’s culture and pave the way for others to adopt similar arrangements), you need to build trust in your team that the new arrangements work. You will need to show that you can still deliver required outcomes on time, going above and beyond to ensure that your colleagues have confidence in the contribution you are still able to bring to the team. This way, your colleagues will naturally be more flexible with your needs and be more accepting of your new arrangements.

    Some actions you can take to help build more trust in your ability to deliver within your new flexible working arrangements include:

    • Ensuring visibility and transparency of your work and progress when you are working away from the office or outside of your team’s regular hours
    • Being overly responsive to communications such as text and emails when you are not working in the office, e.g. by committing to reply within 5 minutes of receiving communications, unless they are received during agreed down times (e.g. during baby’s dinner or bath times etc.). While you need to have clear boundaries for when you are ‘off the clock’, being reliable in responding to communications will show that you are still able to contribute when you are not physically present.
    • Demonstrating that there is no ‘I’ in team. If working flexibly means that everyone is consistently bending to your every need, then it won’t be long until your new arrangements cause friction among your team. You may need to offer some ‘give’ in your arrangements to meet team goals and deadlines. However you may also be able to think creatively to identify other ways to meet team deadlines without compromising your new arrangements and demonstrate that the team can still come first while your need for flexibility is met.
    • Thinking innovatively to overcome team obstacles, e.g. adopting workflow and other collaborative working apps to increase visibility and ownership of team tasks. Consider an online visual management board and adopting virtual team meetings so that anyone can be part of the conversation at any point in time.
    • Taking responsibility for actions that are likely to have a direct impact on your ability to work flexibly, e.g. owning critical meetings (including booking and managing) to ensure that they are held when you are available.
    • Prioritising your to do list on a regular basis to ensure that you are focusing on the urgent and important tasks and not wasting time on tasks of low value. As a Dad, don’t be surprised if you suddenly become overwhelmed with staying on top of your to do lists (worth and home). When sleep deprivation kicks in at the same time that your baby-related to do list grows exponentially, you may find items on both your work and home to do lists start falling through the cracks. A good tip is to try writing your to-do lists into a commonly used urgent/important 2x2 matrix and focus on completing the items in the top right column first, and those in the bottom left hand column last if at all. (You may even want to outsource these to someone else if possible!).