I took some time off work recently for a long weekend in Italy. As I was packing my hand luggage, I didn’t hesitate. My company mobile phone and my BlackBerry both went in. After all, someone might need me. It wasn’t until later that weekend (when I’d been exchanging texts with a colleague from the bus driving along the Ligurian coast) that I realised the boundaries between my work life and my personal life had blurred so significantly that it felt normal to be working on holiday.
Technology makes it possible for us to work at any time of the day and night. With financial markets opening and closing at all hours, and team members spread out across the world, it’s a surprise we ever get any down time at all.
“I’ve done a lot of work with people in different time zones and have many clients in this predicament,” says Carolyn Thomson, Director, Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP. “There are many ways you can alter what some might consider a ‘traditional’ work schedule to accommodate the globalisation of business. One is to split up your day in an unusual way that accommodates both your personal schedule and your professional demands. When I was doing a lot of work in Singapore, I left my office a little earlier, had dinner with my family, then got back online for a couple of hours in the evening to deal with what I needed to for my clients who were just getting to work there. That gave them several hours – while I slept – to do what they needed to do on their end, then when I got up I started a couple hours earlier than I needed to so I could wrap up with them at the end of their day.”
It takes a certain kind of organisational ability to be able to structure your day like this. It also takes the ability to use technology to the best advantage.
Hello? Is Anybody There?
“While technology is an integral part of our work and personal lives, most executives are using technology in a reactive way – replying to phone calls and emails – rather than a proactive way where work is discussed and decisions are made,” says Devita Saraf, CEO of Vu TelePresence. Saraf uses video conferencing to keep in touch with her team. “I speak to my team in Pittsburgh, PR agency in New York City, digital agency in Holland and my marketing team in Mumbai all in one go, no matter where I am,” she says. “It is much faster and easier than floating hundreds of emails or making conference calls where no one really pays attention.”
Using technology well means getting your message across faster – leaving more time for the ‘life’ part of ‘work/life balance’. “One of the biggest time savers is being able to read each other’s body language, and I find this is instrumental in speeding up the communications process,” says Saraf. “Every country has a different business culture, and through face to face communication, companies can transcend misunderstandings.”
Creating the Right Balance for You
“If you have recurring business in other countries or work for a company that follows the sun, you can post your daily office hours on your email signature so it’s very clear when you are available for unscheduled calls,” says Thompson, who is also a career coach. “There’s always going to be an interruption here and there and things that you need to schedule outside of those hours but letting people know the best time to reach you is professional.”
So what can you do to improve the balance in your life? First, prioritise. Don’t let small or unimportant tasks eat into time that you should be sleeping or spending with your family. Have a clear plan for the day, week or month so that you know what your focus should be. The more organised you are, the easier it will be to keep on top of everything and give your best to your colleagues and your family.
“I feel that when professionals can give their best to anyone in the world at the time that is most convenient for them, they have achieved an ideal work/life balance,” says Saraf.
Stop Feeling Guilty< .h3>
Key to finding that convenient time is to push away the guilt that comes with managing a flexible schedule. The right balance for you might include a little bit of work every day, even when you are on annual leave.
“My recommendation is to first stop beating yourself up with needless guilt but also make firm decisions about what will be acceptable to your family,” says Mark Faust, founder of consultancy firm Echelon Management International. “Is there a benefit to completely unplugging from the office? Sure. But does it need to be for days at a time? No. While I return calls within 90 minutes when in the office, when I leave for vacation tonight I will still get back to people each day but on my time and perhaps with a drink in my hand.”
Faust says that it’s important not to feel guilty for taking a short call occasionally at odd times. However, remember that you are always in control. “Be assertive enough to move anything longer than a few minutes during these times to a mutually agreeable phone appointment,” he adds. “With this flexibility and self control you gain the competitive advantage of service responsiveness as well as peace of mind that all your priorities are being met on your terms.”
When I got back from Italy, there were no voicemails for me and all the urgent emails had been dealt with. I didn’t have that ‘first day back from holiday’ dread and I didn’t face an overflowing inbox. I’d managed things abroad on my terms, and I had a great trip. That’s the way I’ve found my work/life balance. How have you found yours?