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Back to School: Let’s All Talk About Our Work-Life Realities

By Jennifer Laible

Happy fall! This has always been one of my favorite times of year. After taking time off to reflect and regroup during the summer, fall is the time to return to routines and structure. Fall is also back-to-school season, and regardless of whether you’re a parent, it’s a good transition point to be intentional about your habits and schedule, and to think about how to successfully integrate work with the rest of your life.

I’m the mom of two elementary-school-age boys and the president of Antenna, a 100-person organization that provides marketing consultants on demand. It’s important to me to build a culture that supports everyone’s work and life reality, whether that means being flexible for parents’ schedules, giving people time to care for aging family members or supporting employees who need to prioritize non-work activities.

For years there was a stigma around sharing too much about your life outside of work, but that’s changing, which is good for everyone. The more we all talk about how we manage our full, integrated, sometimes-complicated lives, the more we can understand and help each other.

This fall I’ve been thinking a lot about how I integrate work and life, and how I help our employees do the same. Here’s what’s been working for me.

Making It Work with a Busy Family

My fall reality looks like this: My husband and I both work full time, and my boys are active in school and sports. Our days are full, and my schedule has little wiggle room. Every Sunday night my husband and I sit down with our calendars and talk through each day in the coming week. Who will take the kids to school and pick them up each day? Can we manage the soccer practice carpool, or do we need to call in help? Who has work events at night? Will we need babysitters? I sometimes joke that I’m the administrative lead of my family, and managing all of that scheduling and coordination is no small job.

I’m in the thick of trying to make working-parent life work, but here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Your work and life aren’t always going to be “balanced,” and that’s OK. Instead of trying to perfectly balance everything, cut yourself some slack. Some seasons have intense work demands, while sometimes you’ll need to devote more attention to your family or life outside of work. On Monday I might leave the house for a work event at 7 a.m. and not get home until after the kids are in bed, and on Thursday I might leave work at noon to chaperone a field trip. No one is perfectly balanced all the time, and it helps me to zoom out and look at how I spend my time over a longer period (a month, a quarter or a year).
  • Be realistic. While it’s nice to think that everyone can have and do it all, being everything to everyone is a direct path to burnout. Several years ago I started doing something completely new to me: saying “no.” When someone asks me to serve on a board, take on a new work project or volunteer at the kids’ school, I take a full look at what’s on my plate. If that new responsibility won’t fit, I politely turn it down. Be clear about your priorities and focus your energy on what’s most important.
  • Talk about your work-life reality. I’m encouraged by the growing culture of honesty at work. If you’re feeling taxed or stressed, talk to your manager and your co-workers. Find ways to shift your responsibilities, deadlines or schedule to make everything fit for you. If you’re having a crazy week and you’re feeling overwhelmed, speak up early so you can get help and create realistic expectations about what you can contribute.

Creating a Culture that Supports Everyone’s Work-Life Reality

I’m not just managing my own work-life reality this back-to-school season. I’m also running a company full of people, each with a unique mix of schedules and responsibilities. At Antenna we help everyone navigate their work and personal lives by following a few core tenets: Be accountable, ask for help when you need it and give help when you can.

First, we’ve built a culture of accountability. That means we’re mostly concerned about output — getting your work done on time and at the highest quality. It’s up to each person to figure out how to do that. Our opening position is always “do what you need to do.” We still expect everyone to do their job, and we hire A-players who hold themselves accountable to a high standard. Our message is simple: Do great work.

We also understand that sometimes life looms large and an employee can’t do their job like normal. If a family member is hospitalized or a child is home sick, plans change. We work together to make coverage plans so that the work gets done and the employee is free to take care of their life outside of work.

Finally, making work and life work for everyone means acting like a team. If you expect flexibility, you have to give flexibility to others too. If your co-workers stepped up to cover for you last week, soon it will be your turn to step up, stay late or go above and beyond. Talk about your own challenges and listen when others need help.

This fall I’m reiterating that creating a flexible work life isn’t about working less; it’s about managing all of the responsibilities in every part of your life. The more everyone starts talking and listening about the daily realities of making that happen, the more successful (and less stressed!) we’ll all be.

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Antenna is a leader in delivering top marketing professionals to corporations of all sizes for project-based consulting, interim leadership assignments, and contract staffing engagements. With headquarters in Minneapolis, Antenna draws from its private community of experienced marketing talent to help clients balance the flexibility and expertise modern marketing organizations demand.