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From rhetoric to reality – the dawn of a new work-life balance

As we poke our heads out of our lock-down burrows, we’ll find that the world has changed. The vast majority of us will have been working from home (or furloughed) over the last 12 weeks or so, finding that one week blurs into the next. We really were all in it together, forced by an invisible enemy. Some sense of solidarity and commonality emerged as we all sought to adapt to that strange new world.

But we struggled to find structure and routine, reach out to our loved ones, connect with work-colleagues, manage home-work boundaries, care for dependents and home-school from an experience base of ground-zero. But we did it. Perhaps not perfectly but probably good enough. And that in itself demonstrates the new things we have learnt about ourselves – our capacity to adapt and change, to accept an altered reality, to become more tolerant, to seek out creative opportunities, to re-assess our purpose, meaning and values, to reach out to others, to become resilient, to be more human.

We know that people at work prefer a status quo with which they are familiar and why managing change at work is a complex blend of negotiation, communication, consultation and perspiration. As we were all cast adrift at sea together, we were forced to find out own individual groundedness. Except the axis has changed and now we’re redefining cultural norms, societal values and behaviours and remapping the fiscal, political and economic landscape.

We’re not just going to be picking up the pieces of the corporate maelstrom, we’ll need to act fast and decisively like never before. We are at the edge of an economic abyss. Business imperatives have reached critical break-even points as we fight for economic survival. And yet with this, opportunity knocks. The challenge of new ways of working could be almost as seismic as the impact of the Industrial Revolution.

Human resource management is going to be the driving force for how we rethink, reinvent, re-engineer, reform and rejuvenate. We’ve seen how people really are our most important corporate asset which is why the redundancies and company closures have been felt so painfully. But we will rise like the phoenix from the ashes. There’s been much talk about how we can build a new and better world. We’re staring at a new age of compassionate leadership, one with emotional intelligence at its core. We need to lead with our heads, our hearts and our hands to foster a shared purpose, empathy, agility and resilience.

Work-life balance isn’t a simple schism between work and non-work. It might bask under the canopy of flexible working policies but ultimately we need to ensure a sustained work ability and capacity rather than just a sustained return to work strategy. A work-life smorgasbord includes a consideration of people factors (others at home and work), personal development (all about self), professional issues (macro-work), productivity and performance (micro-work), psychological and physical wellbeing (health) as well as practical factors (life at home and work).

As we re-engage and re-connect, it’s worth pausing to consider what our active reinvention might look like as we evolve our unique, new hybrid work-life balance. We can do this with a DRAM;

Digest the complete landscape of all the changes that have occurred
Reflect on what has worked well and what has not worked well
Act to amplify what worked well and ditch what didn’t work well
Manage, plan and deliver how and what to take forward – the new normal

The battle’s not yet over so the war’s not yet won but we’re winning the fight. To continue this crusade, we need to draw from the spirit of humanity and forge a new way of being at home and at work. Work-life balance will be at the epi-centre of our brave, new world.

As we adapted to a largely virtual world through the prism of audio-visual communication technology, the disinhibition effect we experienced helped to make us more real, transparent and human again. Airs and graces were replaced with chaotic home-spaces.

Compassionate leadership is not just about recreating a more empathic and people-focused culture. It starts at home, with us. The talking needs to continue but the action needs to start. The best way to start is to begin.

Rick Hughes is Author of ‘Get a Life! Creating a Successful Work-Life Balance’ and Head of the Counselling Service at the University of Aberdeen. – Kogan Page

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