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A Work-Life Balance Hack

Without a doubt, the coolest aspect of having your own company is the ability to do things however you want. That might sound obvious (or childish… I can’t decide), but my point is this: think about all those times you’ve worked for an organization and asked, wondered, or even silently screamed in your own mind: “Why do we do things this way?!?

For me, nearly all of those moments were sparked by being perplexed at the operation of my situation or even other organizations, followed by thoughtful consideration of how I’d do things differently. One of the biggest things I learned from getting laid off, followed by a global pandemic, followed by hiring new employees is the importance of work-life balance.

Fortunately, we are an entirely remote organization, which facilitates this a bit more. Some of you may be in fully virtual or hybrid situations. Even for those of you who only got a few precious months of WFH (that’s “working from home” for the uninitiated), the major benefit of working from home is flexibility. Want to do laundry while you’re working? Go for it! Have ten minutes before the next meeting starts and you want to clean up the kitchen, have at it. Need to schedule a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day on a Wednesday (GASP)… well guess what: the world is your oyster.

If you’re one of those brick-and-mortar sticklers, you’re probably thinking, “AHA! See, these people aren’t working as hard! They’re cutting out to do all this other personal stuff.” Listen, we’ve all sat through enough pointless meetings, had someone annoyingly stand in our doorway when we’re trying to work, or been an hour late because traffic backed up on the interstate. As I always say, I can work hard from home, I can slack off in the office. The location does not dictate my effort or productivity.

Regardless, I think we’d all agree that we prefer when we can focus on work when it’s worktime and life when it’s lifetime. I won’t make any claims about productivity, but I think many would agree that it’s far better to have all of your worktime concentrated into certain windows rather than meandering throughout your calendar.

So here’s the hack we recently enacted: we rank-ordered the days of the week in terms of meeting preferences:

  • Mondays and Wednesdays: Ideally, we’d have all of our meetings on these days.

  • Tuesdays and Thursdays: If we can’t find something that works on M or W, then we look to T and Th.

  • Fridays: Break glass only in case of emergency. (Seriously though, I threatened termination to anyone who tries to schedule a meeting after 2 on a Friday.)

Here are the benefits of this approach. First and foremost, on down weeks, we could have one, two, or even three days when we have no meetings scheduled. If you’d like to deep-dive into those analyses you’ve been wanting to run or that report you want to write, you have the time. Want to schedule a doctor’s appointment, well you know Tuesdays and Thursdays are better. And of course, external meetings are going to pop up to muck this up a bit, but that’s ok. It’s just about setting some guidelines that might help organize our time a little better.

There are, however, three caveats/considerations before seeking to apply such an approach. Admittedly, some of these are immediate, practical limitations, but others are broader questions that apply to the general pursuit of improved work-life balance:

1. It all depends on how busy you are. While there are certainly some idiosyncratic quirks (that’s a euphemism for “annoying pains”) about working in the education industry, one of the things that I appreciate is the pace. We don’t have a lot of assignments given on a Thursday afternoon and due on a Friday morning (or, dare I say… work over the weekend!). We have a workflow that allows for even the dream of a day without meetings. So if that’s not your world, this doesn’t apply. BUT, I would argue… why do you have THAT many meetings?

2. First, know thyself. In my experience, WFH generally goes swimmingly well. I’d say that about eighty percent of people function comparably to what you’d see if you put them in an office setting. Ten percent are like me, and WFH actually opens up more time for personal enjoyment and development. I’m not saying we work less than we would in an office setting, but we certainly maximize the flexibility that WFH provides.

The remaining ten percent of people have a hard time drawing boundaries. The shame of being able to work anywhere or at any time is that these people do work everywhere and all the time - work now bleeds into every crevice of their day. Depending on who you are among these three groups, this approach may not work, or at the very least, add minimal value to your work-life balance. My hope, however, is that such an approach (or any effort to strategically balance time) will help you join the 10% of us who are really making work-from-home work for us.

3. The importance of leadership. In a previous role, the company policy was that we could work from home as long as our supervisor was comfortable with it. I had one particular supervisor who was not only UNcomfortable with WFH, but they traveled about eighty percent of the time. So… they were comfortable with themselves being trusted to work outside the office, but not us. Moreover, this person would CONSTANTLY send emails in the middle of the night (another red flag in the work-life balance conversation).

As with many things, leadership plays an important role in, not just policy, but the transition of that policy into culture. If you have a boss like the one I just described, a policy like this won’t help with work-life balance because they’re not truly interested in making that happen.

At DIA, I work hard to communicate the importance of work-life balance at every turn. Formally, we ask each employee about work-life balance during our monthly performance evaluations, just to check-in and make sure that everyone feels supported. Culturally, I am pretty open and honest about how I spend my time (e.g., “Can we move this meeting back an hour? It’s supposed to be really nice tomorrow and I’d like to go golfing.”). There’s a part of me that feels bad about this, but then I remember that part of me is the one that expects everyone to be in an office from 9-5 every day. It is not the part that values work-life balance.

The whole point is that I loathe the term “work-life balance.” I don’t mean to be one of those people who pokes holes in social science terminology, but my distaste comes from the realization I had during the lay-off/pandemic period, during which I was starting DIA. First, work shouldn’t come first. Second, they shouldn’t be “in balance” – your work should be a part, I repeat, a PART of your life. As I recently told our team in a late-week text message, “I really do hope you find some joy in your work, but whatever you go off and do this weekend, it should bring you more joy than this.”

This approach here is just one of the things we’re trying as part of our efforts to (1) be an innovative and effective organization and (2) to truly help our employees achieve fulfillment. I’m sure many of you have heard things from your organizations in the past, but if it’s not backed up with concrete policies and effective enactment of those policies through culture, what good are they? Maybe this helps you tactically, maybe it doesn’t, but if nothing else, I hope it gives some perspective on the balance of work and life in your own career.

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