Let’s talk about the elusive work-life balance. When was the last time you took a vacation? I mean a real one, where you disconnected from your phone and ignored your email? What about at weekends - are you the first to leave on a Friday or do you stay in the office until the cleaner comes in? Or do you work from home, where work and the rest of life blurs together?
When you love your job and want to do the best you can for your organization, it can be hard to switch off from it, especially in the age of constant communication over our smartphones. But the truth is, no one can do their best work under constant pressure. For an association to flourish, everyone involved should switch off every so often so they can return to work refreshed.
I identify more with the Boomer generation than my own. As CEO at the American Alliance of Orthopaedic Executives (AAOE), I know that my conscientious work ethic can be hard line – I trust people to stay in the office until the work is done, and I expect them to be available 24/7. However, I want to work on this. I do a disservice to my staff teaching them these lessons, because it perpetuates a high level of need. If colleagues and members think you are available all the time, they may exploit that availability and expect immediate responses. Setting this precedent will backfire if it leads to burnout.
Instead of expecting too much from ourselves and our coworkers, let’s think about how to set boundaries. The achievement of a healthy work-life balance comes from the top down. If a leader is looking after themselves, they’ll be able to better look after their staff, volunteers, and members. Maintaining the kind of culture where no one works themselves into the ground requires an active effort, such as incentives to take weekends off or to spend time building professional networks outside of the workplace.
The brick and mortar workplace
At AAOE, we moved into our current office space in January 2016 after voting as a team against going virtual. Staff of all ages decided they would prefer to maintain a physical workplace, so we continued down the brick and mortar road, with working from home as an optional alternative.
We’re looking into launching a scheme next year to provide a vacation benefit, in the form of one thousand dollars a year for staff members to spend strictly on leisure activities. Receipts from this benefit might be for a trip across the country or weekends away, or for fun things like cultural events and festivals. Basically, we want to give incentives for our staff to have fun! This benefit will provide encouragement to those who feel pressure to work non-stop. We as an organization want to support our staff in finding balance.
The landscape of the workforce is changing in exciting ways. I like where things are moving, such as opportunities for staff to work remotely for a month from another country. This kind of flexibility would also benefit those who are returning from absences like maternity leave, who are not completely out of commission but who don’t have the option of returning full-time to the office.
In a leadership role, the challenge for me is to be open to new ideas. I need to listen to my staff and hear them out when they tell me what they want.
The virtual workplace
I spoke to my friends Cecilia Sepp and Sharon Kneebone, who both have experience working from home at virtual associations, about their methods for finding a work-life balance.
Cecilia told me about the ‘Work at Home’ game she recently created.
“I’m at home all the time and I’m at work all the time. At my former association, we were all doing the same things: not taking a shower, still in our pajamas at four o’clock. You sit down to work with your coffee in the morning, then suddenly your spouse gets home and you haven’t brushed your teeth yet.”
The game provides gentle reminders for staff to check in with their bodies and build a routine.
“So there’s a points system: if you brush your teeth before ten o’clock, you get ten points, and if you exercise that day, that’s fifteen points; if you’re still in your pajamas at five o’clock, you lose thirty points. It’s a fun way to maintain focus between coworkers.”
Sharon believes in the importance of maintaining a professional network outside of your specific workplace.
“I go a little bit crazy if I don’t have human interaction. So what I have said to my staff is, I need you to find a professional group and you need to get out at least once a month for a lunch - get dressed up, go out and meet your peers. This means being purposeful about maintaining your networks because it’s very easy in a virtual space to let them go.
“Even in an office space, it’s important to maintain those professional connections outside of your work. They help maintain that balance and a perspective on the outside world. It’s easy to become myopic and get absorbed in the latest cultural battle within our organization - we’ve all been there. Maintaining connections outside of that microcosm helps us maintain our sanity.”
Everyone has their own method. The process of setting boundaries between your workplace and everything outside of it is an ongoing challenge and part of creating a healthy professional culture.