Take a bow Australia. According to a 2018 study of 21 OECD countries, Australian parents are world leaders when it comes to spending time with their children. The average Aussie parents spend 4 hours a day with their kids, far more than parents in other parts of the developed world. This is despite almost half of all Aussie families now having both parents working. Is it time to strike a balance? (Feel free to check out my recent book ‘More Like the Father’ if you’re wanting more from parenting)
In the majority of households, mums still account for the bulk of that time spent with the kids, although Australian fathers spend a credible 70 minutes with their kids (up from 5mins in 1974). Despite this progress over the last few decades, many dads say that they’d like to spend more time with their kids. How do we go about achieving a better ‘life balance’?
Change your language, change your mindset
It might sound like semantics, but I’ve never liked the phrase ‘work/life balance’. When we talk about work/life balance, it sounds like they’re two opposing forces. But it’s not work vs. life; work is a very important and integral part of our life. By referring to ‘life balance’, we’re less likely to think about work as the enemy, and instead see it as just one of the many important stakeholders competing for the 168 hours in our week.
Use the technology
Regarding choice around how, where and when we do our work, there is no question that technology now provides a level of flexibility never seen before. Armed with my laptop, iPad and mobile phone, I can literally work from anywhere.
Free video call apps now bring a level of call quality that is vastly superior to super-expensive teleconferencing units of 10years ago making it easy to have ‘face-to-face’ conversations with people in other geographies. The ability to share files on-screen and collaborate with colleagues interstate and overseas means I’m flying less, and that translates to more time with family.
The downside of this technologically enabled flexibility is that, unless we’re careful, our work can creep into every available waking hour and encroach upon family time.
Set clear boundaries
A few years ago, I had one of the most empowering conversations of my whole career. Our team scheduled time where we each took turns sharing what flexibility meant to us. One person said she wanted to work from home on Wednesdays. She said she was OK with swapping her work-from-home day if there was a really important meeting on a Wednesday.
I said that my goal was to be at home for at least one mealtime at either end of the day, but preferably both. If I missed breakfast with the family because had to be in the office for a 7:30 am meeting, expect me to be gone by 4:30 pm to be home in time for dinner. Even if we had a big project deadline, I’d rather be home in time for dinner with the family and log back on after the kids had gone to bed.
Once everyone had shared, the team had a very clear understanding of what flexibility meant to each person, including their priorities and boundaries. It’s unfair to be cross with our colleagues for not respecting our time and other priorities outside of work, if we’ve never taken the time to clearly articulate our boundaries and expectations around our availability.
Invite your kids into your world
Spending quality time with your children doesn’t always have to be Lego, slot cars, Barbie dolls and Disney movies. When our kids were younger, in the school holidays they would take turns coming to work with me for the day. We would find a quiet place for them to watch movies on the laptop and do some colouring in. I would stop for morning and afternoon tea with them and they chose where we went for lunch. Years later they still talk about the bus trip into town, what we ate for lunch etc. Inviting your child into your world gives them insight into what you do between leaving the house in the morning and returning at the end of each day.
One of the challenges in a highly connected world is switching off the technology and being present. If, when we’re watching TV with the family or playing games with the kids, we stop and check our phone every time it ‘pings’, it signals to our kids that there’s something more important than them. There’s the odd occasion when you’re expecting a super important message or call. In those instances, explain in advance that you may need to stop what we’re doing for 5mins to take that call.
At the beginning of my career, I had a big computer and printer on my desk in what was still a very paper-centric workplace. I feel blessed to now be living in an age where I have the technology to work from home and pop out for an hour in the middle of the day to watch my son’s school soccer match. Having great technology is one thing but achieving ‘life balance’ requires that we’re intentional about setting clear boundaries around how and when we’re available. If we don’t, one day we’ll wake up, the kids have left home and the regret expressed in the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s ‘Cats In The Cradle’ will be ours.