Friday, 31 January 2014

Year in Review: Finding the Balance

Our final roundup focuses on making tangible changes to find a better balance for your working life.

How is your office arranged? Research suggests that open-plan offices aren't delivering the expected benefits to productivity. In particular, workers feel even less able to freely communicate, thanks to noise and lack of privacy making the exchange of sensitive information more difficult. How might we better organise the workplace? A recent review recommends that we align how we work with fundamentals of human nature. An active species with most of its evolutionary history spent firmly in natural surroundings, we thrive in sunlit, plant-filled environments, and operate better when not forced to spend the day in a sedentary seated position - hence the advent of standing desks. Moreover, our bodies are built for napping, and for non-human companionships, so workplaces with a crash-out room or a canine team member may be ahead of the curve.

For the self-employed, you might imagine that the work environment is a non-issue - after all, home should already be a nice and comfortable place! In fact, it's even more important for home-workers to find a way to shape their environment and ensure that its separate functions - work and home – are given appropriate forms. Often, blurring between the two seems to lead to frustration and makes it harder to maintain productivity. Research shared in a 2013 symposium suggests that many academics may also need to improve their ‘boundary management’ and find ways to switch off, such as avoiding work emails in evening times. However, the symposium also presented a model of work-life balance with a range of functional strategies. Whereas many people seek separation, others can find flow in an 'always-on' state where home and work life are integrated together.

Then come the times when you’re not at work, but you certainly aren’t off-duty. Business trips bring their own stresses, and we now understand more about what is likely to heighten them, such as travel that involves a destination very different from your home culture. This is because culturally unfamiliar contexts rob you of many of the tools and tricks you normally use to navigate setbacks, obstacles and crises. This will resonate if you've ever stood in line at passport control, or sat in a lounge surrounded by furious delayed passengers, and realised that you have no inkling of the etiquette for queuing, complaining, or simply asking for help.

What happens when you're looking for a broader change, one not covered by reshaping your office or an evening email curfew? At such a point we often turn to others for help. Looking at the evidence base for coaching, we see that although it is substantial in some ways, it still lacks a body of systematic science demonstrating comparative benefit compared to other methods of development. Researchers are busy trying to change this situation - see our upcoming post on strengths-based coaching.

Meanwhile there are other more self-directed approaches for clarifying your wants, needs and priorities. Within your job, try reviewing your current situation and then redesigning it to look more like a job you'd jump at if you saw it advertised. Evidence suggests that you may find it easier to introduce more of what you like in the job than to get rid of what you don't, but keep an open mind and be inventive. And if you're not comfortable with where you are, researchers are currently exploring the power of narrative and creative writing as a method of self-career counselling.

In sum, to balance your working life, don't neglect the importance of place. Recognise your own ways of juggling work and home demands and see what's working and what isn't. And use coaching or self-counselling to empower yourself to make the changes that will benefit your career.

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