How do people manage a personal life when they work in high-pressure workplaces?
To find out, Boston University Professor Erin Reid visited a global consulting firm with a strong U.S. presence, where workers are expected to commit to their jobs above all else. After interviewing more than 100 employees, she got her answer: Those who found balance were “passing,” she said, as ideal workers while discreetly using strategy to manage their personal responsibilities.
Some people were able to push back on “always on” expectations and circumvent conflicts without suffering penalties in performance reviews or promotions. After publishing her findings in the Harvard Business Review and the academic journal Organization Science in April, she discovered “passing” is rampant in workplaces. “The reaction was overwhelming,” she said. “People told me they passed or they knew people who were passing. People are feeling the time crunch and they have found interesting strategies for dealing with it.”
To coping with grueling work expectations, Reid discovered men more often quietly carved out personal time. Women who had trouble with the work hours tended to take formal accommodations — negotiating reduced work hours, for example — and suffered by being marginalized within the firm. Men instead experimented with less formal ways of handling their work schedules.
So what are some of the under-the-radar strategies that workers use?
They choose their clients or customers carefully. The ability to balance may be rooted in the clients you take on. The consultants who enjoyed a personal life managed to get on local, repeat or nonprofit clients or internal firm projects with predictable demands. That made it possible for them to travel less, telecommute more and alter their schedules to work from home at times. By maneuvering, they created a better situation over time through informal tactics rather than by formally requesting a different schedule.
They control information about their whereabouts. When workers who passed skipped work to spend time with their children or spouse, they didn’t call attention to it. One senior manager described how he skied with his son five days one week, and took calls in the morning and evening. Because he was mobile, no one realized he wasn’t in the office. Partners at the firm describe him as a rising star.
Earlier this year, I attended a work/life workshop for lawyers. A female partner with five children offered this advice to other women: “Stop announcing when you are leaving early to pick up your kids. Men don’t do that.” Samantha Paustian-Underdahl, associate professor of management at Florida International University, said women have fewer role models or mentees than men who can show them how to achieve balance under the radar. “Females don’t have as many senior leaders who have figured it out to teach them how to do it. I think that’s why more women still are following the rules.”
They develop relationships with a boss or colleagues who have a similar mindset about work/life balance. In Reid’s research, one whole team on which members had small children had a shared agreement about work/life balance. As a group, they traveled little, worked reasonable days and often worked from home, without obvious penalty. They also mutually agreed not to work on weekends.
Even in a pressure-cooker work environment, switching departments or teams to work with others who believe in balance can be key.
They build a reputation as hard workers. At the firm Reid studied, many of those who passed had developed a good reputation with managers in their companies so that their time was less scrutinized. Once one had been label a star, assumptions about their work habits stuck and the opportunity to exercise flexibility increased. “This can be trickier for women, particularly mothers,” Reid said. “Their time is policed in a way that men’s is not.”
While workplaces have become more demanding, Maria Bailey, an authority on marketing to moms and founder of BSM Media in Fort Lauderdale, said men have been “passing” for decades, not necessarily for family reasons. “Twenty years ago, men would silently leave the office at 1 o’clock and play golf. They didn’t need to announce it. “Bailey said moms need to change their innate behavior of looking for outside validation if they, too, want to pass: “Instead of asking for permission, we need to get validation from ourselves. It’s OK to start work earlier or take hours off in middle of afternoon if we do what needs to get done for the day.”
Reid said the widespread prevalence of these under-the-radar methods shows that organizations need to change, rather than deny promotions, raises or good reviews to workers who admit to family responsibilities: “It’s ridiculous to expect to workers to be on all the time. Organizations need to put aside the focus on work hours and focus on productivity.”
One organization has confronted this issue head-on. At Deloitte Consulting, Cathy Benko, vice chairman and managing principal, said the global firm encourages transparency through a process called “predictability and flexibility.” At the beginning of a project, all team members are asked about flexibility needs or upcoming work/life conflicts. “The work needs to be delivered, but if we systematically ensure these conversations happen and the group works together [up front] to figure it out, there is a lot of benefit,” Benko said.
In the future, Bailey said she expects to see the need for under-the-radar strategies to carve out more personal time disappear with the millennials. We will have an entire population of people who think spending more time with family is more important than work. Employers will have to change.”
Connect with Cindy Krischer Goodman at @balancegal or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit worklifebalancingact.com.