Work life balance

Few in our mothers' generation faced the decisions we do about juggling work and family. Choices are wider but demands on time and energy greater than ever before.

Working as a mother involves complex questions.

  • Is full-time motherhood an affordable option?
  • What are the prospects for returning to work when the children are older?
  • What to do as a single parent?
  • If we work out of the home, should it be full-time or part-time?
  • If we work from home, is part-time or full-time the best option?

It is a huge subject and one that requires careful thought to meet individual needs. Answers are there in many organisations, books, tapes, workshops and government schemes. This is a gateway to some of those resources and a response to one of the commonly asked questions from motherInc. members - how to keep work and life in balance?

Many people today are redefining the concept of success, says Susan Biggs, motherInc. adviser, deputy chair of the Premiers' Council for Women and author of the invaluable book, Time On, Time Out!, Flexible Work Solutions to Keep Your Life in Balance (Allen & Unwin). Many people say their priorities are fulfilling relationships, personal wellbeing and work that serves personal and community goals.

"The question is: If these are truly our goals, are we acting in ways that will give us what we say we want?," says Susan. Working out your own personal equation for balance begins with writing down a life plan. Fantasise how you would like life to be. Let this be intuitive.

Create your life plan

•    Write down what is important to you. This may include health, relationships, work, community.
•    Decide what you want to achieve in each of these areas.
•    Decide how and when you will achieve these goals.
•    Consider what it takes to maintain that plan. This may involve rearranging weekends or evenings.
•    Communicate to those whom the plan may affect.
•    Celebrate your achievements.
•    Regularly focus on your goals.
•    Review your plan.

If you do this exercise honestly you will know the answers to how much, if at all, you want to pursue paid work. Then it is a matter of finding the best solution for you. Fortunately, says Susan, more enlightened companies such as Westpac and AMP are recognising that women do have children, those children get sick and they have school holidays that require a parent at least some of the time.

Flexibility in workplaces is increasingly possible, though not always easy to achieve. motherInc. member Tina Attwood is a Human Resources specialist seeking part-time or job-share work. She finds employment agencies reluctant to consider the options. Other women complain that part-time work is only available on lower salary scales and compromises promotion.

Assumptions about flexible working practices are a barrier, says Susan. Beliefs include the notion that flexible work practices are relevant only for employees and their children, are solely a female issue, that other workers will resent such arrangements and that work and personal life should be separated and that customer service organisations can't provide these practices.

Yet companies such as AMP have disproved all these theories, including the idea that senior management cannot work effectively part-time. Susan's advice is don't be daunted-research what is required, target family-friendly companies and work consistently towards your goal. Here are some options:

PART-TIME AND JOB SHARING

Permanent part-time work or job sharing allow you to keep up with technological changes, have a strong presence in the workforce with pro-rata benefits but still have time for yourself. What kind of arrangement works best depends on the nature of the job. Job sharing, for example, may involve two people sharing the same duties but working on different days. Or they split the duties and work somewhat independently of each other.

To overcome management objections, thoroughly research how this arrangement might work and write a proposal. This may include how it benefits the organisation, what your job schedule might be, how client or customer service would be affected and communication strategies for urgent business on your days off.

"Familiarise yourself with some of the reservations you believe your employer might have about the logistics," suggests Susan. Be aware, too, that job sharing and part-time work is not always a solution, especially if it simply means fitting a full-time job into fewer hours. "Careful planning is needed if part-time work and job-sharing is to be successful," she says. "Communicate! Make sure everyone in the workplace, particularly the person answering the phone, knows your schedule."

FLEXIBLE HOURS

Fewer than two workers in five now work standard 9-5, Monday to Friday. Flexi-time, compressed working hours and "banked" hours are other options within full-time employment. Flexi-time is most common and involves certain core hours around which start and finish times can be altered. Compressed hours may mean working four 10-hour days or an agreed number of hours over a week or fortnight. In Sweden, for example, parents can work six-hour days until their children turn eight. Banked hours are those worked over the expected number and can be used at other times, such as during school holidays. Again, research what would work best and write a proposal.

WORKING OUTSIDE THE OFFICE

Here's good news. Leone Lorrimer, a partner at consultancy firm Woods Bagot, says most workers can manage their work from home. Most jobs fit into five categories: managerial, professional, process work, customer services and telemarketing and mobile work. Each of these categories is a growing for home-based services which can actually extend the hours a client can obtain from a company.

"All the research says that financial advantages of having employees working from home outweighs the costs," says Susan, whose book provides detailed financial breakdowns of what is costs to establish a home office compared with what it costs to replace a manager. Time on, Time Out! includes a 10-step plan to the flexibility you want. It features a checklist of questions to work through. The book also has dozens of case studies, practical suggestions for getting the work you want and a bibliography for further reading.

Organisations such as the Affirmative Action Agency provide information on the best and worst performers in human resources practices and lobby for better conditions.

 
Banner