By Working Woman
Work. Life. Balance. 3 words that put together in the same sentence constitute the most sought out and popular theme of the 21st Century worker. There have been many articles authored, consultants hired, employee-related schemes planned by HR executives in order to tackle the issue: How to live as you see fit while at the same time getting the job done! I never actually gave much thought into that concept, until 7 years ago, when I was hired at the last company I worked for. In 2009, a couple of months prior to my wedding, I made a job change to a new company. Up to that point I had already been working for 4 years in the same industry and was able to hold the same type of job, with the same types of demands, while doing some part-time tutoring to kids and adults. I was able to do the things that mattered to me, like take up my hobbies, meet my friends and family and travel. It all changed that year. Initially, I thought it was due to my marriage; indeed when you move out of your parent’s home the responsibilities are greater and things that were taken care of before by your parents, now demand your time and effort.
Yet, I have only recently come to realize that that, was not really the real issue there. People have been getting married and holding a career years now. Mine, should not be any different, I thought. I should have seen it the moment that my immediate supervisor looked at me with incredible aw as I announced I was getting married in September, as a reply to her comment that I should be 110% focused on a specific project under my management starting that period of time. Then came the accusation of “you never told us you are getting married at your job interview” which hit me like a tons of bricks! Why should it matter to her, what I do in my personal time, in my life? And why would my personal life constitute an issue for the company I work for? Friends and my partner were quick to explain to me that in her eyes and in the company’s eyes, my marriage constituted a family, kids, no dedication to work. I went through 7 whole years of being available 24/7, blackberry in the hand and all, vacation time while being on call (an out of office message did not constitute an excuse for not replying to an email), emails drafted and sent at all possible hours of the day (my favorite, receiving an email at 9pm on a Sunday, to prepare a brief presentation for Monday morning meeting) and being looked at weird if for any reason I chose to leave my desk at any time prior 7pm. My life became a struggle of compromising personal pleasures for managing it all. A home, a career, ME. I even witnessed the “onboarding” talk my immediate manager gave to a new team member :“Jane (for the sake of anonymity), you now have 3 important trials to run and like everyone else in this room, you breathe and live for those. No, weddings, kids and stuff. THEY are your priority…..”
And then came the resentment, in my 4th year the initial signs of burnout were evident, even on my health. I hated my job, the way my career was shaping and was taking a toll on my relationships. Work-life balance? None! No balance of any sort. And I felt helpless in a dead end job which I hated and which suck all of the life and time out of me, depriving me of the things that mattered to me (getting my exercise, eating a balanced diet and not in hotels and restaurants every other week due to my travelling obligations, having more time, more my friends, for taking care of my family, taking care of my home, etc). I would discuss with people and they could not see the issue, because come on! At least I had a job that paid and I could do it well. People who worked in an office all day would actually say how great it must have been for me to be travelling and not be office based (while all I could think was the myriads of hours stuck in traffic, the stress the discomfort and exhaustion of having to stay away from home every 2 weeks). And then it made perfect sense to me! Work-life balance is a concept that is quite subjective after all. There are people who would enjoy my type of work schedule and would not find it limiting.
The literature includes different types of practices introduced to basically help people manage the conflicting worlds of work and life (flexible work hours, working from home, parental leave, etc). But the literature is missing the last argument I made. Let me clarify. If you look for the definition of work-life balance in Wikipedia you will come across this: “Work–life balance is a concept including proper prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) and “lifestyle” (health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development/meditation). This is related to the idea of lifestyle choice” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work%E2%80%93life_balance ). Exactly! Lifestyle choice! What I value as pleasure, leisure is not the same as the next person’s or it might not be even on top of his value list. Even so, what this means is that people have to find the right mix of work demands and whatever makes them happy outside of work (life), is still importance to balance, but this needs to be the right balance according to each person’s needs. But is that possible in the business world? And can it relate to startups?
Recently, I came across a blog post, written by Sacha Strebe, managing director of My Domain (a blog dedicated to everything around lifestyle, careers, money, travel, etc), which indicated that in the US there is a reported a spike in mompreneurs, as they are described, moms who are working from home. Though, the reasons explained behind this movement in the editorial, circle around the financial burdens of childcare, thus forcing many mothers to stay home and start their own business, so that they can take care of their children while still pursue their career, the link provided to an editorial for 4 “mom-preneurs” living the “work-life dream” really made me think whether the surge of the startup culture, could actually positively affect the whole work-life balance struggle. And whether the start uppers have solved those problems for themselves; after all these women’s testimonials gave an overall positive outlook to being an entrepreneur and starting your own business.
The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that there is a rise in female entrepreneurship compared to 1960s, with a great number of that % comprised of working mothers. This comes as no surprise, given the new business environment described on my second blog post, characterized by the emphasis placed on individual entrepreneurship, coupled with the decline of the traditional “job security”. Web 2.0 and cloud computing has enriched the possibilities and opportunities to start a business, fund it, reach a large number of customers, geographically dispersed , communicate and handle all aspects of business without being physically connected. Since you can start your company from your own home and you can either run your team (once your business takes off) or collaborate/co-own your business with someone who is not remotely located close as you, you don’t have to spend precious time on traffic or commuting to work.
Katie Hintz-Zambrano argues her case for her entrepreneurial venture, “One mother we interviewed said it’s not really about ‘work/life balance,’ but the ‘work/life juggle,’ and that’s really resonated with me. Each day you’re just trying your best to keep on top of your workload, your family responsibilities, as well as self-care and some semblance of a social life. Of course, it’s usually the latter two that get pushed completely out of the picture. But the next day is a new day to try again. I feel incredibly grateful that I don’t have to work office hours. I have a sitter that comes four hours in the morning during the weekdays, and that’s my time to work (in a coffee shop) without a toddler nearby. Once he wakes up from his nap, I’m on mama duty for seven to eight hours straight until he goes to bed. Then, I get back on the computer for a couple of hours to finish up more work. I also try to multitask socializing with my girlfriends—those with or without kids of their own—when I’m with Diego. That helps my days feel more complete.” (http://www.mydomaine.com/mom-work-life/slide3 ).
It is not only the flexibility to work from wherever you wish and the work hours you wish, while keeping in close relation with those who matter to you, the startup culture is one that takes the worker outside the 8 hour office schedule. This is important as the concept of work life balance has been closely tied to the 8hr work day. As a startupper, Elizabeth Yin argues that it is not the hours that we work, but how happy, productive we are in the hours that we choose to work. This defines each person’s balance and prevents burnout. She makes her point beautifully when she argues that “So, going back to the startup work-life balance issue. On one hand, you have this article which talks about Elon Musk taking one vacation in the past four years – as if that’s an unbalanced bad thing. But, frankly, it sounds to me like he doesn’t need vacation very often. Then, that IS BALANCE to him! On the other hand, Ryan Carson often describes his 4-day week, and that’s balance to him. And yet, both Musk and Carson are manning fast-moving ships. So, balance isn’t something you can quantify as a set amount of time” ( http://blog.elizabethyin.com/post/33235630505/youre-thinking-about-startup-work-life-balance ).
This brings me to the point that balance is very subjective and anything that threatens to upset it, will eventually have a negative effect on a person’s productivity and efficiency at work. Thus, work-life balance comes down to finding that mix which is ideal for you. It is not a panacea having your startup and being your own boss, when it comes to eliminating stress and finding that balance. Having said that though, the are characteristics inherent in the startup culture that can help find that “ideal” mix and these are the characteristics I described in the previous paragraphs. You see startups such as Google that have for example offered their first female personnel the flexibility and supportive motherhood culture needed, allowed those employees to become valuable executives, without sacrificing family or their career. And set the building blocks for the future culture that Google now holds as a mega-corporation. What’s more, an employee who has learned to work in such a flexible and supportive context, even if one day leaves the startup, or if the startup grows bigger, he/she is likely to carry those values and not settle for anything else.
So, although it is not given that if you work or own a startup your work-life balance is guaranteed, “more and more workers are finding joy and freedom working when they want, from where they want, moving from one interesting problem to the next” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/opinion/sunday/disposable-workers.html?_r=0 ) and that is a feature that a startup can nowadays provide.
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“Working Woman” (2016, April 18). A mindset revolution! A historical account of the startup movement [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://startmeup2016.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/a-mindset-revolution-a-historical-account-of-the-startup-movement/
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Strebe, S. (2016, January 12). This Is the Real Reason Moms Aren’t Going Back to Work [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.mydomaine.com/childcare-costs-more-than-rent/slide2
Strebe, S. (2015, July 28). 4 Stylish Mom-preneurs Living the Work-Life Dream [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.mydomaine.com/mom-work-life
Wagenbreth, H. (2016, April 16). Disposable workers. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/opinion/sunday/disposable-workers.html?_r=0
Work-life balance. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 9, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work%E2%80%93life_balance
Yin, E. (2012, September 10). You’re thinking about startup work-life balance all wrong [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blog.elizabethyin.com/post/33235630505/youre-thinking-about-startup-work-life-balance