By Alan Zucker
January 4, 2023
Balancing our work and home lives is a challenge that nearly everyone faces. I was a single parent for many years and managed large teams and projects in Fortune 100 companies. It was not always easy.
Recently, I was talking to an old friend and former colleague. When we worked together, she did not have children. She remarked at how easily I seemed to manage the competing demands of work and fatherhood.
I chuckled to myself. Externally, I projected a sense of Zen-like harmony. Internally, I felt like I was spinning plates on poles. I was trying to be a good parent, take care of myself, and be a good manager. On a good day, all of the plates stayed aloft, and none hit the ground.
I am fortunate. I have a successful career. I “retired” from the corporate world to launch a second career as an instructor and consultant. My children finished college, graduated school, and ultimately, “adulting.”
In this article, I share some of my guiding principles and experiences. These things worked for me within the context of my life. These are not universal solutions. I hope they are helpful to others.
One of the common deathbed regrets is that we spend too much time at work.
We value our jobs. In turn, they contribute to our sense of value and self-worth. We work in competitive environments. Every organization has unstated expectations of how long and when we should be at work. Bucking these norms is hard. Being responsive and demonstrating “face time” are often perceived as important.
Early in my career, I was one of the few people in my group that had a child. My core working hours were dictated by daycare. I would usually arrive an hour before my colleagues and rush out the door at the end of the day. I often felt guilty about leaving.
When my children started school, I made conscious choices to make time for their activities. I coached grade school soccer teams. I volunteered to chaperone class trips—they were fun.
Taking this time from work was not always easy. And on more than one occasion, I spent too much time on my smartphone dealing with a work situation. There were also times when I prioritized work over family.
In retrospect, I cannot recall the meetings I missed. However, I regret some of the family events or commitments that I sacrificed.
Set Reasonable Boundaries and Expectations
Setting boundaries and expectations easier said than done.
At work, it is a multilateral process between an employee, their manager, and team members. Setting expectations is a negotiation and requires give-and-take. It is not about creating personal edicts.
Boundaries also need to be set at home. For several years, I worked from home two days a week. My children knew not to bother me when I was on the phone, which was almost always. There was the time I pulled out my daughter’s baby tooth just as my last call of the day was beginning; but that is a story for another day.
Before setting our boundaries, we need to survey our constraints and identify options carefully. We have more opportunities than we initially think. We need to be creative when considering our choices. We also need to develop contingencies because life events do not always go according to plan.
Next, have a conversation with your manager and/or team members. Explain your situation. Most people will be empathetic, if not sympathetic. Discuss the options and alternatives and find workable solutions. Being flexible creates goodwill in the process.
I have a visual impairment that prevents me from driving after dark. When sunset was early, I would often leave work early and then finish my day at home. Fortunately, this accommodation was always granted by managers. When there were significant events or meetings, I would alter my plans by getting a ride with a colleague or using public transportation.
It was less convenient, but it demonstrated my willingness to recognize priorities and make accommodations as well.
Be Honest and Transparent
I had a great manager when my children were little. Even though she did not have children, she was very understanding for those of us that were parents.
One day I had to leave work a little early. I was feeling guilty and slipped out, thinking that I would not be missed. Well, of course, that was the one day when something happened. My pager went off, and my boss asked, “where are you?”
I told her that I had an appointment and left early. She was not happy. Not because I left work, but because she didn’t know where I was. I learned an important lesson that stayed with me throughout my career and as I moved into leadership roles.
Your manager and teammates will understand that you have family, personal, or other issues that require your attention. We all do. But you need to communicate and be transparent. It is the polite thing to do.
As a manager, I had employees with medical issues, childcare challenges, and in the process of earning college or graduate degrees. I always encouraged them to communicate their needs to their teams and me proactively.
Being more efficient sounds obvious. We all think we use our time wisely. Most people spend less than a third of their time doing activities that directly contribute to creating value for their customers. That leaves much room for improvement.
Many business environments foster inefficacy through a “face time” culture. Unless billable hours are a key performance measure, being in the office just to be seen does not increase value. As a manager, I would tell my team that “we are being paid by the pound, not by the hour.” A completed deliverable was what mattered, not the time spent creating it.
During the summer of 2019, Microsoft Japan had employees shift to a 4-day workweek and witnessed a 40% increase in productivity. To get more done, they reduced meeting durations from 60 to 30 minutes and capped attendance to no more than 5-people.
We have control over the meetings we organize. Running more effective meetings is often a matter of setting clear expectations and enforcing discipline. Establishing ground rules, setting and following an agenda go a long way.
Kanban boards are increasingly used to manage the flow of work on agile teams. We can adopt the same practices to make us more effective. By creating transparency into our competing priorities and reducing the number of items we are juggling at once, we can accomplish more things.
Managing our work and home lives is complex. We need to set clear priorities, set reasonable expectations, and be efficient in our work.
About the Author
Alan Zucker has over 25 years of experience leading projects and project management organizations in Fortune 100 companies. In 2016, Alan founded Project Management Essentials to share his passion for and experience in project management, leadership, and Agile.
Alan is a frequent keynote speaker and thought leader. He authors monthly articles, is regularly quoted in the industry press, and is a podcast guest. He is an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University and the University of Georgia; and is a senior instructor with several national, professional development organizations.
Alan has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland and a master’s and a certificate in IT Project Management from the George Washington University. He is a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Agile Professional (PMI-ACP) through the Project Management Institute. He also holds multiple Agile certifications from Disciplined Agile, Scrum Alliance, and Scaled Agile.
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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.