A Guide for Stressed Working Parents

Author Cali Yost says everyone needs an individualized plan for flexibility.

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Before becoming a working parent myself, I didn’t really grasp the challenge of combining a career with family life. After all, don’t you just send your happy child off to school during the day while you pursue your professional life, and then gather around the dinner table for quality time at night? Of course, I quickly realized how challenging it really was, as soon as my daughter came down with a series of viruses her first winter and I felt like I was constantly leaving work early or staying home to be with her, not to mention worrying about her when I managed to make it to the office.

Now, when I read about working parent issues, I’m looking for real solutions. How do you share responsibilities with your partner? How can you be productive even when making sure to put your child’s needs first? Is it even possible to feel like you’re excelling in both areas of your life? Cali Williams Yost, chief executive of the Flex+Strategy Group, a flexibility strategy consulting firm, and author of Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You, helps people answer those questions for themselves. Excerpts from our recent conversation:

Before you wrote your book, what did you feel was missing from work-life discussions?

The individual was missing. Since 1995, I’d been developing and implementing work-life flexibility strategies for companies. Most, if not all, of the emphasis was on the company and manager. What did they need to do differently to help their employees manage their work and life?

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Around 1998, it became clear to me that, honestly, an employer can only do so much. They must create a culture that supports the work-life conversation, but, at the end of the day, the solution rests with each of us. Only you know what’s going to work for your unique job and personal realities. And, everyone is so different. One size does not fit all. My book was the first step-by-step guide to creating a plan that fits.

You write that the most successful work life plans are employee-initiated, but how can employees best propose a plan?

First, make sure you have the right mindset for success. For example, know that for any kind of flexibility to work, you are responsible for keeping the lines of communication open with your manager, your clients, and your team. Don’t expect them to come to you. Also, be flexible, by willingly shifting your new schedule periodically to “go the extra mile” as needed.

Second, know how to identify and avoid the common roadblocks that will unnecessarily derail you if you’re not careful. For example, what does “success” look like related to prestige, advancement, and care giving? If your personal definition of success in these areas is too rigid, you’ll feel bad about what you are doing and give up. This is particularly tricky territory for high achievers.

Once you’ve got the mindset and know the roadblocks, draft a plan to discuss with your managers. Outline the type of flexibility you want, how your job will get done, how you will communicate with your boss, your team, your customers, and when the plan will be reviewed. Every plan should be reviewed regularly to make sure it’s working for all parties and to make adjustments if needed.

Any advice for employers trying to navigate this terrain?

The goal for employers should be to create an operating model and culture that uses flexibility to achieve business objectives better and smarter. As a chief executive recently explained to me, in his company flexibility helps people “give great customer service to our clients.” There’s a clear “why” based on business goals. It’s not a “nice to have” perk.

This requires investing the resources to study what’s already working in your organization. Whether or not you have any “formal” policy related to flexibility, it’s happening informally. Learn from what they are doing, then start to scale it.

Does the tough economy give employees less negotiating power so it’s harder to for them to negotiate plans that work for them?

If someone is truly afraid that any mention of an adjustment in their work-life fit will put their job in jeopardy, then focus on the small changes that can make a big difference. Every week, pick three activities or experiences that you think are missing, and make them happen. Call a friend for a cup of coffee and put it on your calendar. Go to the gym, walk your dog, clean a closet. Whatever it is, over time, those small things add up. And no one will even notice but you.

Since your book first came out, what do you think has changed about work life fits? Has it gotten easier or harder?

Since my book was published in 2004, a couple of things have gotten easier. Advances in technology make working remotely much more seamless. We can argue that this improved technology has also tied us to work 24/7, but I prefer to see how it has enabled an even more flexible, adaptable work-life fit. We do need to consciously manage that technology so it doesn’t manage us.

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There’s also more day-to-day flexibility that allows people to go to a doctor’s appointment or watch their child’s soccer game without having to deal with raised eyebrows. That is real, meaningful progress because most of the time that’s all people want. I’m not sure anything has gotten harder as much as we haven’t made enough progress.

For the most part, work-life fit is still considered a moms-only concern, and it’s not. It’s an everyone issue. Too many senior leaders and line managers still believe flexibility is a “nice to have” perk, when it’s actually a core strategy for making money and growing the business.

What’s the fit that you’ve found works best for you?

Right now, I work for myself, running my business from my home office. As an entrepreneur with two business partners and a staff that also works remotely, there’s a lot of work and it’s never “done.” But I am vigilant to deliberately build in to my work-life fit the personal “to dos” that give my life meaning and provide a sense of well-being. I am so fortunate to have two beautiful children, a wonderful husband and amazing friends. I also make taking care of myself a priority as much as I can.

When your office is in your house and clients span different time zones, it’s very easy for work to takeover! Sometimes it does, and then I reset my “fit.” I also know that my circumstances will change, but for now this is optimal. Managing your work-life fit is an ongoing practice. You are never “there.”

You can read more about Yost on her blog.