When it comes to work-life balance, the current pandemic has created a situation for many people that is the stuff of nightmares. If spinning the plates was challenging while kids were at school and parents could be relied on to occasionally pick up the slack, it’s become nigh on impossible under lockdown. Under these extreme circumstances it is understandable that women in particular are questioning whether ‘having it all’ is worth it. However, every crisis brings new opportunities, they say, and this one offers us the potential to rethink how we balance work and caring in new ways that acknowledge the hidden realities of women’s lives.
Around the globe women carry out three times as much unpaid household and caring work as do men. Not only is this work unpaid, it’s also — as Katrine Marcal observes — invisible in economic measurements and not included in GDP. Yet the value of unpaid childcare in the UK to the economy is three times that of the financial sector. When it comes to the workplace, the extent of this ‘invisible work’ is rarely appreciated by those at the most senior levels. Jobholders are highly likely to be male and operating in cultures established by men for men. In contrast academic research over the past thirty years into work-life balance challenges has been heavily dominated by women. Perhaps that explains why the issue of work-life balance has always hovered at the margins of workplace practices; never making it to the mainstream.
Indeed, over the past few years the challenges of finding balance had been getting worse for many women. Research by Dr Christine Grant spotlighted the increasing tendency for mothers to work a triple shift of work — childcare — work; resulting in exhaustion. Further research by Professors Kinman and McDowall revealed less than half of UK employers have a work-life balance policy and offer little or no guidance on disconnecting from technology. All of which was pushing an increasing number of people towards #AlwaysOn working.
Amidst the chaos of the measures imposed by governments around the world many employers were forced to concede that working from home might be a viable possibility. Cue a cohort of seers predicting that post pandemic this will be the ‘new normal’. That the majority will continue to work from home on flexible schedules while having found a new appreciation for ‘the things that really matter’. They could be right; although since I read Dan Gardiner’s ‘Future Babble’ I’m a lot more sceptical.
What the pandemic does offer us, however, is the possibility of re-thinking how we structure jobs and corporate cultures so they finally acknowledge the unpaid second job worked by female (and increasingly male) employees. To get there we need to redesign jobs and redefine our implicit assumptions about careers.
Moving to a focus on outputs coupled with agreed deadlines not only makes better use of many people’s skills but also treats them as adults able to shape their own working lives.
In the majority of workplaces it’s still the case that employees receiving the highest rewards (both in terms of salary and promotion) are those who work the longest hours. This clearly disadvantages women who, as we’ve already seen, find their time eaten up by their invisible and unpaid work. But it also disadvantages men. As Juliet Schor pointed out a decade ago: much of the work we do nowadays has no end. It continues from day to day — so who tells an employee when they’ve done enough work and it’s time to switch off?
Moving to a focus on outputs coupled with agreed deadlines not only makes better use of many people’s skills but also treats them as adults able to shape their own working lives. We’re two decades into the 21st century — surely it’s finally time to ditch outmoded working practices?
A focus on hiring for outputs based on best use of skills benefits everyone. Employers get better value for their money while jobs can be shaped to accommodate employee needs. That allows us to hire more creatively. As we emerge from the pandemic commentators are suggesting we will plunge into recession. If we carry on as we’ve always done we risk creating two classes of people: one struggling with overwork and another that remains unemployed.
If, however, we focus on employee preferences we can offer reduced hours jobs and share the work around. Provided these are genuine career opportunities and not the ‘mommy track’ jobs that women have been pushed into working previously, the advantages to both women and the economy are obvious. As Caroline Criado Perez points out: diversity leads to innovation. Moreover, there would also be advantages to men who need no longer pretend career progression is their sole interest, and can shift into taking a bigger role in family life.
Rethinking expectations about careers
We must redefine what we think of as ‘professional behaviour’. Being a mother does not make me any less professional. Indeed, it may make me more professional if I can deal with my subordinates or difficult clients with the same compassion I show my children.
When women stormed the corporate world in the middle of the last century they only had the men’s playbook to guide them. The rules were clear: we keep work and home life separate and avoid mentioning family if we wish to be seen as career-minded professionals. Over the years the rules have slowly been changing. It’s time to re-write them completely.
Having babies does not mean a woman is less committed to her career; or that a man is more committed to his now he’s a father. But it does make life more complicated for both parents when, as we’ve seen, they must pretend at work that those babies didn’t happen and don’t exist. People are increasingly keen to (and increasingly being encouraged to) bring ‘their whole self to work’. If we’re not hiding any part of us then why would we deny our caring responsibilities?
Accommodating people’s whole selves means accommodating messy lives that don’t always fit the nice clear career paths so many employers still expect people to travel. We must redefine what we think of as ‘professional behaviour’. Being a mother does not make me any less professional. Indeed, it may make me more professional if I can deal with my subordinates or difficult clients with the same compassion I show my children. We need to reconsider the labyrinth of unconscious biases and outmoded practices that get in the way of both women’s progress and more balanced lives.
Above all, we need to start the conversations now. Our circumstances may feel overwhelming, but rather than give up we need to step up. So that once this whole thing is over we do indeed find a new — and more balanced — normal.
Anna Meller is the UK’s leading work re-balance expert, and author of #Upcycle Your Job: The smart way to balance family life and career. For more on this, see Anna’s recent PI-Q webinar The New Balance.