As I sit in my home office listening to the sounds of nature, children laughing and playing next door, and the occasional lawnmower; I am reminded that this new post-COVID ‘normal’ has provided many employees with the freedom to escape the commute and office environment with so many positive benefits (even with the occasional lawnmower interruptions).
With all the positives however there has come a sacrifice; a challenge to ensure we can distinguish between work and home life when the two have now combined. How we can still balance the two when they are now only a kitchen table away.
While workloads (especially across the community sector) have yet to slow down, the thought of recouping an extra hour in our days given we can work from home does not seem to be something utilised by employees as well as it should.
Instead of exercise, mindfulness activities, family time, extra sleep, or similar; employees are logging on early to read emails, finalise To-Do lists and finish off tasks from the night before, and seem convinced that the extra time they have recouped is now simply extra work-time to keep playing catch up.
Instead of taking a sick day when unwell we are simply working from bed and not taking the time out to let our bodies rest and recover (employment data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (via ABC News) shows a 37% decrease in employees missing work due to sickness compared to figures prior to COVID-19).
The lines have now blurred without a professional work environment and travel/commute to separate our time. While we have the privilege of being able to pop a load of washing on in between meetings and walk to school pick up instead of drive, this means we are bartering with time and end up working into the evenings and weekends to make up for what we lost.
Historically, if we were in a traditional physical office environment and we wanted to do these activities they would either wait until the weekend or we’d take personal leave time. In the majority of positive workplaces, this would be welcomed without the expectation that you then spend the extra time that evening or on the weekend doing work activities.
Don’t get me wrong, historically the option of ‘starting early today to finish early tomorrow’ and ‘making up time’ has worked well for many and meant that projects can still be delivered on time, client expectations are met, and inboxes emptied. What is concerning now however is the regularity of this occurring in many workplaces and the disparity between juggling your usual workload and home life with juggling an increased workload AND home life.
American podcast and management leadership coaches Michael Auzenne and Mark Horstman of Manager Tools re-released an episode this time last year called ‘Work-Life Balance: The Yellow Peanut M&M Analogy’. While the timing could not have been more perfect (thanks COVID), it is a message that needs to be reiterated every few months now we are in a new state of ‘normal’.
Mark and Michael argue that work AND life should never be in balance. They describe keeping things in balance (like a set of scales) means when something tips lower on the scales something else rises higher. When more time is dedicated to working it raises higher on the scales. Family/friends/social life then lowers on the scales causing a sense of loss and disappointment – because you couldn’t keep them in balance. Every time you log back onto work at night for ‘just one hour’, you are not giving that time to your family = insert feelings of guilt and disappointment.
Employees who continuously work on balancing their time, trying to ‘manage’ it needs to stop, given time is not something that can be managed. Instead, priority management and understanding what to prioritise your time towards over something else is where we need to focus.
Here is where their Yellow Peanut M&M analogy comes in.
They encourage listeners to purchase a bag of peanut M&M’s and take out a yellow one. Hold the M&M between two fingers and hold it up to the sky. As you hold the M&M up, close one eye and position it right in front of the sun so that the M&M is now just blocking the sun/they appear the same size.
The purpose is for you to see that these two spherical objects appear the same size, in fact when aligned the M&M actually blocks the sun.
HOWEVER consider the M&M is your work and the Sun is your family. The M&M can be found all over the world, mass-produced, and is fairly insignificant. The sun, however, is the giver and maker of life on Earth and a source of incredible energy that powers our world.
Now sit with that statement for a while….. pretty impactful, isn’t it?
We need to be able to differentiate between the priority of work tasks compared to the time at home with loved ones. To still keep track of our start and finish times and work hard to close the laptop/office door outside of those hours. To take the sick leave when we are sick!
We will always need to balance things in life, especially in the caring profession when vulnerable people rely on our service however there is a way to ensure that work and our job is not more important than the rest of our life and what brings us joy.
Consider what can you commit to today to ensure non-priority tasks are assigned to another day or shared with another team member. Can you change expectations for not only your clients but your colleagues/teammates too?
If you are in a management position it is likely that you will still need to spend some external hours on urgent work tasks however consider the example you are setting for your staff and then the commitment you can make to yourself to tip the scales back on the ‘life’ side more than work each week. And then maybe sit down, relax, and finish off that bag of M&M’s 🙂