Work life balance: The reality after the best laid plans

flexible working, working from home

By Verity Brown, Managing Partner at The Specialist Works

Before I returned from maternity leave, I thought I had my work/life balance all worked out; it seemed so easy.

I had listened intently to friend’s advice, read all the right magazine articles and pored over inspirational LinkedIn posts.

Don’t work on a Friday. Go to Yoga once a week. Don’t reply to emails out of work hours.

Work. Life. Balanced!

Well, that was the plan, but like Mike Tyson said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”. OK, having a baby isn’t exactly like getting punched in the face, (well maybe a bit) but it certainly induces the same state of mild frenzy and sudden chaos.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that getting back to work after a baby is a deeply complicated, personal affair – no matter what those articles say. Life is complicated further if you hold a senior role. If that role is in an always-on industry, your boundaries may suddenly turn into abstract concepts like infinity, or a Summer without Love Island.

The sacred Friday off goes out the window when a Board meeting goes in the diary (even if you do attend by VC’ing in with a one –year old eating an egg on your lap). And here in lies the challenge… I want to be in that meeting, I was happy to dial in, I am pleased to work for a company where we are accepting of 13 month olds in meetings and I understand there will always be things that need to get done & sometimes you’re the only one who can do them.

It quickly becomes apparent that a “perfect” balance probably isn’t achievable. But a workable one is.

However you picture your division of work and non-work time, it’s vital to remember one thing; how you carve out your work / life balance doesn’t just affect you; as a leader, your behaviour sets expectations for others within the business.

How many ambitious women at Yahoo let out sighs of dismay when then-CEO Marissa Myer took a mere two weeks leave after having twins?

We owe it to ourselves to work out where our work/life balance boundaries lie – and not just mothers. The BBC recently reported on a study into working on the daily commute, which asked whether commutes should be a paid part of the working day.

Sometimes, being part of that conversation means being more aware of the boundaries of your workmates.

I would often forget when my colleagues worked part time and, suggest meetings & calls at the wrong time. Turns out, that’s hugely irritating. I now make a big effort to remember when and where people are available so I can be respectful.

When you’re not at work, you have to be unashamedly clear in when it’s OK to get in touch.

Annalisa, Head of HR at The Specialist Works, told me about finding her own balance and gave me the most important bit of advice to date. “It’s up to you to set your own expectations, people will follow your lead”

Annalisa was very right. I quickly discovered, if you give an inch, someone will most definitely take it.

On my day with my daughter, I now turn emails off (I did try to read them without responding, but almost spontaneously combusted). Calls are fine – as long as it’s an emergency. I try to be fully present – but it’s difficult, as my brain tries to use the space to deal with all the stuff left buzzing around from the shortened week (I’m undertaking a 30-day mindfulness challenge to help combat this).

As my time trying to find the right ‘balance’ continues I’ve become much more attuned to reading between the lines of what’s celebrated in working life. We tend to cheer when someone has gone above and beyond for the company – worked on a day off, pulled a late night etc. However what we really want to find ourselves celebrating is having built a dynamic company where this behaviour stands out as being totally abnormal. That might be a longer-term goal. For now, I’m going to eat a salad whilst doing Downward Dog and try to turn on the Out Of Office in my head.

About the author

Verity Brown is Pathways Director at The Specialist Works.

Verity kicked off her media career after being commissioned as The Sun’s official ‘Chav Correspondent’, then in 2007 moved into the world of media agencies.

She joined The Specialist Works having worked on some of the UK’s biggest and most demanding accounts, including P&G, Warner Bros, Kellogg’s, McCain and YouTube, with experience spanning planning, strategy, trading, client servicing and insight.

Verity believes a positive and warm working style is key to fostering excellent relationships with agency teams, media owners and clients, and believes an immersive and fun company culture is key for a thriving agency.

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