Building Work-Life Balance Into Your Next Job: Work Redesign

Among the myriad factors you may be considering while evaluating job opportunities, be sure to examine the ones pertaining to work-life balance — they might be the most important details you can consider this time around.

If you think work-life balance is an issue that pertains only to people with young children, you are sorely mistaken. Everyone needs to have a life outside of work. Whether your life includes a spouse and/or children or older parents you take care of, or whether you have a life as a musician or hiker or fiction-reader or gourmet cook, you will need some balance. As Barbara Ehrenreich put it, “Meaningful work and a balanced life are deep-rooted human needs. They can be repressed or ignored, but sooner or later they’re going to assert themselves.”

Following are some work-life balance factors you might consider when investigating a position..

A. The Structure and Nature of the Job

If you are interested in the potential for flexibility within the position, regardless of whether you want to negotiate “flex” now or some time in the future, consider these four types of flex, as they apply to this position. Please note, I learned about these very useful categories from the ThirdPath Institute (http://www.thirdpath.org), a not-for-profit whose mission is to assist individuals, families and organizations in finding new ways to redesign work to create more time for family, community and other life passions.

1. Schedule. To what extent does your work actually need to be done during a particular time of day? Many professionals find that large chunks of their work – research, writing, analysis, visioning, thinking, and planning – can be done during non-traditional work hours, such as:

  • very early mornings
  • 9 p.m. to midnight
  • weekends
  • holidays.

In fact, some leaders find that some of their best work is done outside of regular working hours. In many global organizations, working non-traditional hours is the best way to manage your team members in other parts of the world. Be sure these non-traditional work hours are instead of and not in addition to conventional working hours. A burnt-out you doesn’t serve anyone.

2. Physical Presence. To what extent does your work require you to be in a particular place? If you are an emergency room doctor, you need to be in the emergency room for your clinical hours. But your non-clinical hours, such as planning the monthly meeting, or writing up your research, may be worked from home. In the corporate world, there’s a lot to be said for “face time” with your team. But if your team includes people in London, Delhi, and Tokyo – the closest thing to face will be teleconferences, which you can lead from anywhere.

3. Workflow. How much control do you have over the volume and the pace of your work? If you’re a lawyer who works 80% time in a firm where the full time annual standard is 2000 billable hours, you know you’ll need 1600 billable hours. But who decides which cases you take on-can you say “No” when your plate is full? I know a CFO who works three days a week, and a senior vice president of marketing who works a four-day week. Filling a senior position on a part-time schedule requires discipline and strong boundaries. And of course, even a full time schedule has limits . . . there are only 24 hours in everyone’s day. Who’s in charge of how much is on your plate?

4. Substitution. To what extent can someone else do your work? Are there peers who can take over for you, and/or are there subordinates who can pick up some of your lower-level tasks? Could you job-share with someone? I know of several pairs of vice-president level professionals who are successfully job-sharing.

B. The Culture of the Organization

As you interview with a prospective employer, take a good look at the corporate culture as it relates to work-life balance — see what you can pick up. Is the office open 24/7 and are there people working all hours of the day and night? Do people routinely send emails at 3 a.m. as a matter of course? Do people leave the office at 6:00 and not really come back to work until the next morning? Does the company equate loyalty with long hours? Are there work-life initiatives being implemented? Do they have the support of the most senior management? How can you tell?

In some organizations, non-traditional job structures are standard fare. In others, flexibility to accommodate a parent’s absence in order, for example, to get to the soccer team playoffs is permissible as long as the job gets done. In still others, neither of these options is routinely available at all, but might be arranged for rising stars with impeccable, world-class track records. And in still other companies, it’s not an option for anyone, ever, period.

The most important thing you can do is to be brutally honest with yourself about what you want and need. There are seasons in some people’s lives when work is their only consuming passion and they really want to just go at it at 120%. The April 2005 cover story in Fast Company magazine was called “Extreme Jobs and the People Who Love Them.” If this is where you are in your life and this is what you want, by all means, go for it. And if you truly want something different for yourself, make sure you’re consciously seeking it out.

Even if your new position has no structural or informal flexibility to it, there are still many ways to maintain your work-life balance if it’s a high enough priority for you.

This article was originally published in March, 2006, by Kennedy Information, Inc, at their website, http://www.executiveagent.com, in the Career Tips and Tactics online newsletter.

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