3 Reasons “Balance” Has Become a Dirty Word at Work

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(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)

Recently, as skeptical senior leader asked me to explain the business case for why organizations need to take a more coordinated, strategic approach to work flexibility.

I began to list all of the business benefits, including, “Millennials value their lives outside of work and expect to be able to do their jobs flexibly.” He responded, “The problem is that they don’t want to work hard. I would never have talk about work-life balance when I was their age. I just felt lucky to have a job.”

He is not alone in that thinking. The meme that Gen-Y/Millennials “don’t want to work hard” exists, in part, because they talk so openly about work-life balance. But is the bias fair?

First, there will always be people in every generation who who don’t want to work hard. The Gen-Y/Millennials are no exception, but is it accurate to ascribe that quality to an entire generation simply because they are open about how they want to make their lives both on and off the job a priority? It’s not, for the following reasons: (Click here for more)

Work-Life Hits the Front Page of the NYTimes Sunday Business Section–Why It Matters

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In case you missed it last week, Hannah Seligson wrote a thoughtful and compelling article entitled, “When the Work-Life Scales Are Unequal,” that appeared in the Sunday New York Times business section.

The article deftly addressed the perceptions and realities of unequal work-life “balance” in the workplace (As a colleague in the work-life field said on Twitter, “Good job, everyone.  I was prepared to be annoyed based on the headline. Nice piece!”)

I’m honored that Selignson included my insights in the article as well as cited findings from the 2011 Work+Life Fit Reality Check survey; however, what I found particularly remarkable were:

  1. The placement of the article on the front page of the Sunday New York Times business section, above the fold, and
  2. The large picture of a father with his child at swim lessons accompanying the article.

The placement and the picture represent noteworthy and important symbolic shifts for the work-life debate.  Why?

Work-Life as an “everyone” issue takes its rightful place as a business topic

Historically, the “Style,”Family” and “Life” sections/segments of major media outlets have covered the work and life beat.  The message sent was that work+life fit is nice and interesting topic, but it doesn’t impact the business directly enough to warrant front page, above-the-fold attention in the business section (in “Careers” perhaps, but not “Business”).

Yes, articles related to attracting and retaining women when they became mothers got some business coverage, and more recently, pieces about fathers and work have started to appear here and there.

This article was different. It was front and center, in the Sunday business section of The New York Times.  And it focused on the reality that we all have lives outside of our job that we have to manage. While we don’t need to tell each other what we are doing when we leave work, we must improve how we collaborate and coordinate. We have to focus on how we get our respective jobs done so that what matters to us, personally and professionally, happens in a way that works for everyone.  That includes men, women, single people, married people, parents and elder caregivers.  Everyone.  And being able to manage that process effectively does impact the business.

Does that mean work+life fit shouldn’t be covered in the “Style,” “Family,” and “Life” sections/segments in the media?  No.  We can always use more help with how we manage the “life” side of the equation better and smarter in the context of work, and that fits beautifully in those categories.  But, acknowledging the “work” piece of the puzzle in the context of life is equally as important, and belongs in the business section.

The picture says it all: work-life is not just an issue for women and moms

I was out of town for the long weekend, so I didn’t see the hard copy of the article in print until I returned home on Monday.  Online, there’s a small picture with the article of Aziz Gilani, a director of DFJ Mercury, and his children, Aleena and Ziyad, whom he often takes to swim class during the workweek (image credit: Michael Stravato, The New York Times).

But in the printed paper, that same picture is huge, and placed prominently on the page.  To see an image of a father who leaves work to take his children to an activity on the front page of the business section of the Sunday New York Times, again, wow.

Contrast that picture with the question I posed during a speech I gave two weeks ago, “What are the two most prominent work and life stories in the media over the summer?”  Without missing a beat, the group shouted, “Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic about how women can’t have it all,” and “Marissa Mayer, the pregnant CEO of Yahoo.”  I then asked the group of attendees, “What message does that send about work and life issues?”  Again, almost immediately, “That they are about women and mothers.”

Yes, women and mothers need to flexibly manage their work and life everyday and throughout their careers (I am a mother of two and I understand all too well), but as the image of Gilani and his kids that accompanied this article shows so clearly, so do men and fathers.  And, while not pictured, so do young people going back to school at night, or someone caring for an adult sibling with disabilities.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun, but I hope that the “When the Work-Life Scales Are Unequal” article is the first of many more that deal with the challenges we all face managing work and life in a modern, hectic world.  And that those pieces also appear on the front page of the business section, above-the-fold, in major media outlets like The New York Times.  It’s long overdue. If there are examples, please share.  I’d love to see them.  Because that’s where the topic also belongs.

My CNN Headline News “Work+Life Fit (Not Balance) is an Everyone Issue” Segment

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Yesterday, I appeared on CNN Headline News to discuss the work+life “fit” issues raised in Sunday’s New York Times article “When the Work-Life Scales are Unequal.”

Cali Williams Yost, CNN Headline News (9/4/12)

My keys points in the segment were that we need to:

  • De-parent and de-gender the conversation about work and life.  In our modern, hectic world, we all need flexibility and support to manage our responsibilities on and off the job.
  • Communicate and coordinate with each other more effectively to get our jobs done, and to make what matters to us in our personal lives happen as often as possible.  This mutually-beneficial collaboration and coverage model replaces the traditional “9-5, in the office, Monday-Friday” boundaries that used to tell us when work ended and our personal lives began that no longer exist.
  • Stop seeking work-life “balance” because it doesn’t exist.  All we can find is our own work+life “fit” and do it in a way that considers our needs and the needs of the business, our manager, and team.
  • Do a better job planning the personal activities and priorities we want to make part of our week.  See where there might be a conflict with work and identify whom you need to coordinate with.

What I didn’t get a chance to say is when you initiate that work+life fit coordination discussion with your colleagues, focus on “how” you are going to get your job done, and not on “why” you need to work differently.  It makes that conversation more productive and more likely to result in a mutually-beneficial outcome.

How I Finally Went Cold Turkey From Working on Vacation

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(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com 8/15/12.  Not only did it inspire many interesting comments from readers, but subsequently, I received a number of “out of office” response emails where the sender said they were on vacation and declaring “email bankruptcy” upon return.

The best part was that, in a couple of messages, the sender had embedded this post to explain how they were trying to disconnect from work and take a true break.  Maybe we’ve started a movement!)

How do you take vacation and then actually disconnect from work when you are away?  These are two of the most consistent and, seemingly intractable, including me.  But, I’m proud to say that I just completed my first vacation in years where I almost totally disconnected from email (99%) and didn’t engage at all on any of my blogs, Facebook, or Twitter for two weeks.

Not only did I survive this true break from work, but I feel more energized and focused than I have after most of my previous days off.

How did I do it? I used three simple vacation tactics–day blocking, email bankruptcy, and social media fasting. I explain each tactic below. But first, you might be interested in finding out what finally motivated me, after countless failed attempts, to figure out how to truly separate from work for a few days. (Click here for more)

(Image from FastCompany.com: Flickr user Brian Uhreen)

Monster Careers Work-Life “Balance” Twitter Chat (#MWChat)

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On Thursday, August 16th, I co-hosted Monster Works Twitter Chat (#MWChat) with Charles Purdy of @MonsterCareers, and my good friend, career coach extraordinaire, @MaggieMistal!  

Also, stopping by the chat to offer her helpful wisdom was another friend, career coach Miriam Salpeter (aka @Keppie_Careers).

Check it out at the following link: http://on.fb.me/OJlZm9

Talking Work+Life “Fit” on CBS Radio Career Coach Caroline Podcast

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On Tuesday, August 14th, I was a guest on the CBS Radio Career Coach Caroline Show.  During the show, Coach Caroline and I talked about the common work+life “fit” questions that many people have (for a list of the questions covered, see below).  Here is a link to the podcast: http://bit.ly/Pa8JZh.

  • Why is there no work-balance? How do we handle the different levels of comfort with technology and work flexibility in the workplace?
  • When you want to work more flexibly, why is it important to focus on “how” the work will get done and not on “why” you want more flexibility?
  • Why is piloting work flexibility for a period of time such a powerful option?
  • What is the risk of disconnecting from the workforce for long periods of time? How can you avoid that?
  • Why is it so important for men to participate in the work-life discussion?
  • Do you think young women hold themselves in their careers because of pre-mature concerns about how they will manage their work and life in the future? What could they do differently?

If you haven’t already, I invite you to follow me and Career Coach Caroline on Twitter @caliyost and @cdowdhiggins.

Marissa Mayer and Work-Life Nirvana (My Q&A w/ Reuters)

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(This article by Lauren Young appeared in Reuters.com on July 17, 2012)

The latest poster child for work-life nirvana is Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s newly appointed CEO – who is seven months pregnant.

Cali Williams Yost, a flexible work expert, says Mayer’s pregnancy is noteworthy and symbolic, but not career-defining.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview with Yost, a working mother of two daughters, based in Madison, New Jersey, and author of the forthcoming “Tweak It: Small Changes/Big Impact-Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day” (Center Street, January 2013).

Q. What does Mayer’s pregnancy mean for working women?

A. She is a powerful symbol of what people still think is impossible. The hullabaloo is that she challenges an outdated mindset. That’s why the fact that this is even happening is amazing; however, it’s not so amazing that it should be the sole focus of her tenure as the CEO of a company. It’s something to be remarked upon as what’s possible. It’s an example of how people combine work and life in a way that works for them.

My hope is that her story shows us that having a life – whatever that looks like, be it a pregnancy or an aging parent – should not keep you from doing your job. There will be women who don’t want to do what she’s doing, and there will be other women who look at her and say, “That’s me.”

Q. But most CEOs are not female.

A. Right. The only way women who are not very wealthy, in control of their schedules and in very senior positions can combine pregnancy and work is if we have all things we don’t have now. That includes affordable and reliable childcare, some kind of paid leave as well as eldercare support. For the normal, average, everyday woman, it’s much tougher.

Q. Why is “having it all” suddenly considered a failed theory? (For more, go to Reuters.com)

The 10 Keys to Building the Flexible Workplace of the Future

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(This article originally appeared in TheAtlantic.com)

In a follow-up reflection on the overwhelming response to her article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter wisely noted that we need a new framework for work and life.

She’s right. We do need a new model that moves beyond the outdated limits of “balance” and “having it all.” This approach would acknowledge the radical transformation that’s taken place at work and in our lives over the past two decades, offer greater flexibility and creativity to manage our responsibilities on and off the job, and deal with the lack of child care, eldercare, and paid family leave.

The good news is that a new, flexible work/life framework already exists in a growing number of organizations. In fact, it’s an open secret waiting to be scaled. But the challenge is how to get more organizations to try.

For the past six years, my company has worked with BDO USA, a professional services firm with 40 offices and 2500 employees across the U.S., to create and implement their award-winning work+life flexibility strategy, BDO Flex. The success of this program shows how a new approach to work and life can be tailored to the needs of a business and its people. It also shows how to avoid the common mistakes that turn well-intentioned policies into feel-good window dressing.

Here are 10 ways to avoid the common traps and adopt a new, more flexible framework:

Make the goal work+life “fit,” not balance. One of the first steps in the BDO Flex process was to update the language. How do you describe what individuals want to achieve with flexibility so that it reflects the realities of a professional services firm with international clients and periods every year when the workload increases? Having a consistent “balance” may be impossible, but you could manage your unique work+life fit in a way that met your needs and the needs of the firm.

Recognize that work+life fit is an issue for everyone, not just women and parents. Initially, the perception of BDO USA senior leadership was that the firm needed greater work+life flexibility primarily to attract and retain women. This is the belief in many organizations. However, when an internal survey found that the men and the single people at the firm were having more trouble managing their work and life than the women and those who were married, they quickly reset the focus of BDO Flex. Everyone needed the flexibility to manage their work+life fit.

Base work+life flexibility on an employee-employer partnership. A one-size-fits-all policy or program administered unilaterally from the top-down by a manager or HR will have limited success. From the beginning, it was clear that for BDO Flex to succeed, leaders, managers, employees and HR would all play a role in an active partnership that created flexible work solutions based on the unique needs of a particular business line and its people. (For more, click here to go to TheAtlantic.com)

3 Ways to Break Out of The “All Work” Or “No Work” Death Trap

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(This post originally appeared in FastCompany.com)

As I observed the debate ignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article in The Atlantic from afar over the past week, I witnessed person after person, including Slaughter, fall into the classic “all work” or “no work” trap.” It’s a death trap that immediately kills any productive conversation about creative, innovative ways to work differently. And that’s the real conversation we need to have.

But we won’t until we figure out how to avoid the “all or nothing” landmine that everyone seems to run into whenever a discussion about how to manage work and life in a modern, hectic world begins. Here are three simple steps to get us started:

First, understand what it looks like when someone falls into the trap. You’ll begin to recognize what to avoid. Here are a few examples related to the Slaughter article debate:

The truth is that Slaughter did not leave her senior position in the State Department to not work. She went back to her very busy, very prestigious full-time job as a professor at Princeton. The difference was at Princeton she has more control over her schedule.

Unfortunately, in many of the responses to and interviews about her article, the conversation quickly devolved into the unwinnable debate “should mothers work or stay home.” That’s not what Slaughter did or what she was talking about. And yet, that’s where we ended up.

Few were able to pull themselves out of the trap. It would have meant acknowledging that some people do choose to work all the time, or not work for pay at all, but what about everyone else? How do we take advantage of the countless possibilities in-between and do it in a way that works for us and our jobs?

Watch how Slaughter herself falls into the trap in this video from her interview at The Aspen Ideas Festival. She tries to explain how we should praise women who make work+life decisions in part to care for their families. But then assumes men can’t be guided by family concerns because they have to make money.

Actually, men could and often do make tough work choices based on family considerations as long as the default assumption isn’t that the only alternative is to “not work,” but to work differently.

Again, Slaughter did not choose to work less. She worked differently. There’s no reason a man couldn’t do the same. But in the “all work” or “no work” trap it’s impossible to stay in the grey zone of work+life possibility for all. What about the men who turn down promotions that would have required more work or take lower-paying jobs closer to home? I see it happen all the time, but because those choices don’t fit our rigid “all or nothing” work dichotomy, we don’t see or celebrate them. We should.

Very few people, men or women, can afford to not work even for a brief period of time; therefore, working smarter, better and more flexibly is the solution. Hopefully knowing what the trap looks like will help us avoid falling into it. And we can finally focus our discussion on the countless flexible ways of fitting work and life together.

Second, the issue is how to reset your unique work+life “fit” not work-life balance: If you have a few minutes, go back and re-read The Atlantic article. Everywhere you see the phrase “work life balance,” substitute “find a work+life fit that works for me and my job.” It’s almost magical what happens. All of sudden the unwinnable search to find “balance,” turns into a series of deliberate choices based on work and personal circumstances at a particular point in time. And much of the drama disappears. (For more,  click here to go to FastCompany.com)

The Top 10 Work, Life and Money Lessons from Mika Brzezinski Every Woman Should Know

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(This post originally appeared in Forbes.com)

I’m a fan of Morning Joe on MSNBC. I love the banter between the hosts and the eclectic mix of guests. I love learning about the “real story” behind politics. I love the music, and I love Mika Brzezinski. She’s a smart, experienced newsperson, but she’s also a mom and wife. And she brings all of that to the table each day.

It was a thrill to see her moderate the opening panel when I attended the White House Conference on Women and the Economy in April. Not only did she wear the most amazing pink dress, but she impressed me with her grasp of the complex issues that impact a woman’s ability to achieve her goals on and off the job.

When Senior Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, introduced Brzezinsky as the moderator of the panel, she said her new book, Knowing Your Value (Weinstein Books, 2012) was a “must read for all women.” I decided to check it out. She was right.

Not only does Brzezinski share the often difficult lessons she’s learned over the years about work, life and money but she includes the very candid stories and insights of other successful women like Tina Brown, Sheryl Sandberg, Suze Orman, and Arianna Huffington just to name a few.

Here are ten of the key lessons from the book that every woman should know:

1) Know your “value:” What you contribute and how much that is worth in the market.

My heart broke for Brzezinski when she describes how it felt to finally sign a contract with MSNBC only to realize that both of her co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist made significantly more money than she did. Not only that, but they were assigned specifically to Morning Joe, whereas she was required to do the show and other assignments for the network. This very painful realization finally forced her to objectively and dispassionately research how much she was worth in the market and learn how to be compensated fairly.

2) Don’t wait to be noticed. Walk in and ask for what you want…because that’s what all of the guys are doing, constantly. (Click here to go to Forbes.com for more)