I draw the line. Will you?

Yesterday, my tennis coach shared with me that she has no ‘me time’ left for herself because she finds it difficult to say ‘no’ to coaching clients.  She loves coaching but finds it has taken over her life, leaving little time for anything else.  The typical work-life balance dilemma.

Wherever we look, there are also stories of how our working from home culture is seeping into our lives and we find ourselves working extended hours, muddling work and life without clear demarcation.

So how do we stop the creep?  How do we draw a line between work and life when a lot of our work is our life?

Having worked for myself for many years now, it was always important to me to ensure I do not suffer from burn-out; I wanted to ensure that I don’t resent the work I love because it has taken over my entire life.  So I have learned to come to my own defence and allow myself the time I need for family, household and myself.  Let me share with you 3 things I do in case they might inspire similar action.

  1. Set a starting and finishing time for your day. My day starts early – 5am.  That suits me well as I have become a morning person.  I do a lot of my thinking in the early part of the day, then take a break to wake the kids and get them ready for school.  I then go back to my desk and work until about 5pm, at which point I switch off my computer, leave my home office and close the door.  If I’m honest, I do glance at my emails throughout the evening, but only to prioritise which emails need to be addressed first thing the next day or very occasionally, that very evening.  That doesn’t stop me from making plans for the evening and fulfilling them.
  2. Be honest in your OOO. Inspired by an automatic reply I once received from a client, I decided to be more open and honest about why I’m away from my desk in my ‘Out-of-Office’ replies. You see them a lot these days. “Hello.  I’m currently spending time with the family and will respond to you tomorrow.” Or “Thanks for reaching out.  I’m taking leave to re-plenish my energy supply and will come back refreshed and ready to go on…” or, a more corporate one “Thanks for your email.  I’m away for a few days and won’t be checking my emails.  For any urgent queries, please contact… I’ll come back to you with my reply on…”

 

People like that kind of honestly and respect the fact that you’ve taken time for yourself.  Also, by sharing what you’re taking the time for, you’re also starting to manage expectations.  Even in corporate settings.  When I was young, I thought clients didn’t want me to do anything other than be there for them.  Now I understand that tends to be the exception.  So I encourage you to be honest in your OOO and allow yourself the freedom not to work when you’re ‘off work’.

 

  1. Diarising non-work activities. Avoiding time conflicts makes it necessary for me to diarise everything that’s going on in my life – from work appointments (colour-coded in purple) to my workouts and personal meetings (colour-coded in red) to anything I need to share in the family diary (colour-coded yellow).    This helps me see where my free time is and ensure that I don’t book work-related items over personal meetings.  I treat these equally as important and endeavour to book work calls and commitments around them.  Not only does this make scheduling easier, it also helps me draw those boundaries more clearly in my head.  I’m not inflexible and do move things around, but only if absolutely necessary!

Setting boundaries for yourself is important for so many reasons.  If you’re struggling with time, do allow yourself to shift the balance and create space for yourself.  After all, people depend on you, and you ought to honour that by looking after yourself.

Don’t Waste Time Procrastinating – Focus on Communicating

Guest blog by David Frederick, Principal at Marcus Bishop Associates

David is a new member of the Voice At The Table Community, drawn in by our Tuesday@10 Series, which has been tailored to keep everyone motivated and engaged in exceptional circumstances – covering topics designed to make the best of yourself, including how to improve your performance during remote working, leading a team from your kitchen table and building stronger mental fitness during these difficult times.

Leading a team of accountants, he’s consciously structured his first Tuesday virtual meeting around the Webinar, ensuring it ends promptly at 9.55am so that he can break off to get his weekly fix.

On the series so far, David said, “It gives you a chance to focus on areas you don’t normally look at as an accountant.

“It’s about drawing the best out of people and helping my team to grow.”

He’s found the tips and suggestions shared in the Webinars really valuable in a situation where there was little time for forward planning.

He said, “No-one trains you to work or manage a team from home, so any props that you get along the way that can help the process are useful.”

 

The enforced Working From Home (WFH) experience has given David insight, from which he’s identified five fundamental principles:

  • Establish clear objectives and eliminate any form of procrastination;
  • Allow for flexibility and be ready to change as events unfold;
  • Recognise there will be greater demand upon your non-technical skills;
  • Communication is a key feature;
  • Earlier technological investment and engagement provides a helpful launch pad.

Here’s how he came to these conclusions:

Only a few months ago, Marcus Bishop Associates and its small team of accountants were working from our picturesque location inside Kingswood House in south London. Our pre-COVID-19 place for conducting business is a Grade II listed building, colloquially known as the Bovril Castle. It was formerly the home of John Lawson Johnson the inventor of Bovril.

On Thursday 19th March, we were informed that our building would be closing the next day until further notice. Prior to this sudden bombshell, WFH had only been seriously trialled by myself, due to health reasons.  It was not a familiar mode of working to the team, but here was our opportunity to try it.

 The weekend before WFH began, my thought was, “How on earth am I going to manage this new situation?”

I recall in our farewell team session that I had advised them we’d have a team conference call on Monday at 9:30am. At the time, its content was wholly unknown. Fortunately, over the weekend, a simple tripartite framework for the new uncertainty was hatched.

  • We have to navigate whatever comes our way to get through to the other side and whatever, lay on the other side was not material;
  • Our clients are going to need our real service, cash flow management, advisory services and above all business support to help them through; and
  • The team is going to need greater support if we are to achieve the above.

Suffice to say, I was going to need a miracle or something to juggle these three balls simultaneously.

One word was ever present the whole weekend, “communication”. So I placed it at the heart of our planning to overcome this period of uncertainty. There was no time for procrastination. I set out a three-part plan:

  • Communicate with the team. I planned to hold daily video conference calls with the team at 9:30, 13:30 and 17:30. Perfect, exactly four hours apart;
  • Communicate with our clients. I planned client calls to ascertain their business outlook and how we could help them. Later, as news unfolded we had to communicate regular updates to our clients. It is important to ensure clients know and feel that you are there for them in these times;
  • Communicate with our small business suppliers. I planned to call these suppliers for their business update and share information where necessary.

How was I going to get any work done, with all these new pastoral care services now in the mix? Fortunately, after the shock, surprise and novelty of home working, there was a realignment to a new business in uncertain times.

The realignment was not perfect but where does perfection exist? The lack of perfection was not material to affect our client service continuity. In fact we were still winning new work! I recognise our fortunate position, because the experience has been more traumatic and painful for many others.

Week one coincided with the aftermath of the Chancellor’s first speech, where he announced the first tranche of business support. This was the most demanding week for all of us. We were adjusting to our new modus operandi plus this Noah-style flood of telephone calls.

Since that first week, the team has adapted like a duck to water. This is a great testament to everyone. However, the team members fortunately are free of many of life’s other challenges, such as parental or carers’ responsibilities.

The team’s transition was facilitated by our daily video conference sessions with a rotation of individuals leading the session. In addition, a WFH survey helped gauge the team’s views and identify areas for improvement.

Our daily closedown session at 17:30 has seen the introduction of fun and light hearted activities to shift the focus away from work and targets.

Working from home has produced some positive outcomes for Marcus Bishop Associates:

  • It marked the end of clients submitting physical paper records to us; except in a limited number of cases determined by law. Document transfer via our portal keeps everyone safe and not exposed to any viruses!
  • Clients previously reluctant to use technology had miraculously shifted. Again, adversity was a driver for change and a killer of reluctance!
  • Face-to-face meetings can now be reserved for only those essential business engagements given our successful use of technology.

We’ll embrace working from home as part of our life-work balance but the team has suggested not as a permanent feature.

Active Voice: How to lead from the kitchen table

If you are leading a team from your new office environment – AKA the kitchen – and wondering how to stay on top of work and keep your staff engaged and productive, we have some great tips to keep you on track.

  1. Be clearer than ever about your team’s purpose. This may have changed since the lockdown, if only temporarily. A team that has a strong sense of purpose is more engaged.
  2. Be the leader you aspire to be. Be clear about how you come across as a leader; think about what it’s like to be led by you and how you’re seen as a leader by your team and try to bridge any gaps.
  3. Re-contract with your team. All our relationships with members of our team have a “contract” eg. performance expectations; emotional and physical availability; how we communicate. What does this contract look like under Covid-19 and now that we are physically separate? Especially regarding communication. There may be times when people can’t speak or would prefer to communicate by phone/Zoom instead of email to have more human engagement. It may be advisable to use an email footer along the lines of: “I’m sending this email at a time that suits me, but please feel free to respond at a time that suits you.”
  4. Adapt your leadership style to meet your team’s needs either: a) according to each team member’s style and preferences, b) according to their skills, experience and competence or c) according to what motivates them – find out by asking them what they enjoy and value.
  5. Use structure, but lightly. This will help with business planning. In the current situation, it has been established that people like structure; it helps them to feel valued. Bring structure to your week and decide which team “events” should be mandatory and which should be optional.
  6. Help the team to stay resilient. Make it acceptable for individuals to say, “I’m not ok.” It’s your job as a leader to make sure your team knows that. You can role-model your own vulnerability, talk about your feelings and what you need help on - and how you’ve coped - and encourage people to find something that works for them. However, don’t expect it to be the same as what works for you.
  7. Help manage individuals’ anxieties. Reassure people, where you can. Be transparent and honest and be upfront about what you don’t know i.e. “I’m not sure about the long-term impact of this.”
  8. Be flexible and have fun eg. organise team quizzes and encourage team ideas. Perhaps even suggest taking part in a Joe Wicks team fitness workout.

This sage advice formed the basis of a webinar in Voice At The Table’s new Tuesday@10 series.