Work-life balance tips from a Brussels and Whitehall civil servant
Balancing careers in the European Commission and corporate world with a young family have given Ian William Vollbracht and his wife valuable insights into having it all - some of the time
Work-life balance is a holy grail for many senior managers. It’s a prize that is eluding many in the civil service, according to a recent FDA survey. The union for senior civil servants found that nearly 60% of respondents work the equivalent of an extra day unpaid every week.
This balance was equally elusive for my wife and me. She had a high-profile corporate position in a large US company. I was an advisor in the cabinet – or private office – of a European Commissioner in Brussels, having previously worked as a civil servant in Whitehall.
But it wasn't just the work. We also had three young children (all under four), were both travelling abroad regularly, and then we suffered a sudden close family bereavement.
We dealt with it all, but not without some lifestyle changes. Then, when the dust had settled, we wrote a book about it (The Karmic Curve, under the pen name Mary I. William).
The first lesson we learned is that you can't have it all, all of the time. That goes for men just as much as for women. The second lesson is that when the pressure hits on the family as well as the work front, something will have to give.
Small children are not open to compromise, and family tragedies are not forgiving events. So, however important the work, flexibility had to come on the professional side.
Here, then, are three observations that helped us to rationalise our working lives. But, dear reader, please bear in mind that we were both working in the Brussels institutional and corporate worlds. Whitehall is naturally a far more efficient system in all respects…
1. There tends to be a positive correlation between the number of people present in a meeting and the amount of unproductive noise – to put it politely – that is generated.
So, beyond the ceremonial directorate and board meetings for senior managers that you are obliged to attend, our rule of thumb is that attendance at any gathering of more than eight can safely be delegated. Suffice it to say that this approach has yet to cause us any major problems.
2. It is frequently observed that the working environment is an important element of team productivity. It is less frequently pointed out that different people work in very different ways, even in the same office.
Susan Cain's excellent book Quiet is our inspiration here. Cain highlights that while some outgoing colleagues may love the bustle of open-plan offices and group discussions, more introverted colleagues may need some quiet time to plan and think.
This led us to the very simple conclusion that there was very little point actively monitoring how people worked – provided that they were there on time, of course. Extroverts might be typing while talking, whereas the introverts might seek refuge in the cafeteria not to idle away half an hour, but rather to plan out their next piece of work.
In short, by checking only the basics because of all of the pressures that we were under, we suffered no visible reduction in overall team productivity.
3. Proper strategic planning is hard.
Here, we found no short-cuts. But we do think that there were benefits to doing it properly in terms of time saved once the approach was agreed and in place.
The first part of our method is obvious: to clearly identify the set of acceptable outcomes that you are aiming towards (the landing zone). The second aspect is then to work back from the landing zone to the present situation, identifying as many potential stumbling blocks along the way as possible. This sounds simple. It isn't.
One of the hardest things can be convincing colleagues who are desperate to get started on a project by taking some action – any action – to pause for breath. Because until you know which way the river is located, there is no point hacking randomly at the undergrowth.
For this particular metaphor we are indebted to a Ray Mears survival DVD that we had received as a Christmas present. It also provided some much-needed therapy after stressful days of work and child-care.
Wisdom comes in many shapes and sizes, it turns out.
In summary, we hope that you and your family don't have to go through the same set of parallel challenges that we did, but we did write down our experiences in a book, just in case.