As I write this, I’m off exploring sections of the African continent on what has now become a ‘workcation’: Between visiting heritage sites, hanging with Nelson Mandela’s grandson, safari and African Village tours, I’ve been checking emails and responding to messages (including urgent work related whats app prompts) with a 7 hour time difference to boot. Between sips of my favourite wines, I also compile a detailed to-do list. Later on today, I’ll edit a project document (including an issue brief) and even later this week, I’ll update a visibility plan around revised targets and expanded needs before making plans to visit a diamond mine and wine tour. I mention this to put into perspective how the labour landscape has evolved in line with Information, Communication Technologies (ICTs), the need for attendant flexibilities and how to manage the sometimes blurred lines between work and personal space.
I suppose I have always been an advocate for remote work as circa 2006 when I began my communication journey, I sought to promote the “working remotely concept” which was then met with much scepticism. After all, it was then widely believed that you needed to be in office to convince your superiors that tasks were being completed.
Fast forward to 2007 when I operated in the fast paced Advertising and Marketing industry. By default, extended hours, late night into morning events (cue Magnum Kings and Queens of Dancehall), an ongoing work cycle (weekends, holidays and then some) dictated that some flexibility is offered to compensate for the extenuating circumstances. Note too, that Public Relations, Communications and Event Management consistently rank in the top 10 most stressful jobs.
With a mix of challenges, my foray into Local Area Marketing in the Food Services Industry; Communication in Government services; Development Communication in the Foreign Services and several rounds of Corporate Communication brought with it what I’d like to call a “better appreciation” for the ability of the Modern communicator to effectively operate outside the confines of an office space.
Not to be carried away, however, this was never a “taken for granted” process and a huge part of its success rested in a balance of trust and the ability to deliver.
I do recall, for example, a time when FMCG client requirements on a lifestyle project that had multiple sponsors, required my team (myself and a photographer) to always be two steps ahead of the competition. After all, the PR execs of all sponsoring companies would be issuing releases and the like and the media would likely allow space to publish only one of many. To keep ahead of the competition, following an event that wrapped at 3:00 a.m. I had to have a draft release ready, fill in the blanks at the end of the event and go with photographer in tow to my office about 5 blocks away to load photographs, select best shots, caption, get client approval (literally begging them not to go to bed before I got the go ahead to hit send) and send to media before heading off to bed. This was at a time when I put up a fight against my employer’s proposal to equip me with a blackberry. At the time, I thought the device would be invasive outside of work hours and staunchly resisted.
It was a tough call but I lived for the thrill of meeting deadlines even if it meant getting content off at 3:30 a.m via an office desktop. This dedication to the task built confidence and trust around work ethic. Positively, it set the precedence for what my employer and our clients could expect from me and further their confidence in my abilities in and outside of the office space. Negatively, it gave some indication that I was always accessible, available and willing to deliver even at the expense of personal space.
Later on within the United Nations system, I again had a tough sell. Very important overseas family engagement being matched up against a major global observation that I would be responsible for coordinating in three Caribbean territories. I pulled on every prior right that I had ever done to convince the country representative that not only was I capable but I would also deliver all required elements in a timely manner and so it is that I ventured off on a “work-cation” which is exactly what it was. In between bridal shower, wedding, family get together, there was continued dialogue with a graphic designer, printers, Local and regional office, National Correspondents, Media and vendors. After endless rounds of approvals, compilations, edits and budgets, I returned home 3 days ahead of the events with minor fixes towards a well-received execution. The positive being that I was able to manage both work and non-work priorities, the negative being that I had to share so many precious moments with bouts of work-related elements.
I highlight all of this to put into perspective that in the 21st century and beyond, the Communication dynamics have certainly evolved. In fact, several professions require and even endorse some level of flexibility around work, given the extended and sometimes extenuating timelines. Yet, in the same breadth, some organizations are yet to embrace the potential benefits to be had via flexible arrangements.
Just recently, I listened with empathy as a communication colleague bemoaned the fact that such a demanding workstation was yet to fully endorse ‘working remotely’ and ‘Flexible timing’. For her, it signalled an unfair balance that needed to be addressed with some urgency. As she put it,
“the very nature of my job cannot be classified as 9-5. There will never be a point where I can predict some of the spontaneous organization needs that will have to be addressed with some great urgency. Imagine being called at 10:00 p.m. about a brief that was needed for 6:00 a.m, yet being denied an opportunity to work from home the following day, having spent the entire night working on the requested brief. It only seems fair that some due consideration is given to encourage the ever fleeting work-life balance”.
Having been in her shoes a few years prior, I was a mix of heartened and concerned by the International Labour Organization recently published findings around remote/flexible work options. Under the banner “Working Anytime, Anywhere” the ILO-Eurofound report shows that the use of modern communication technologies facilitates a better overall work-life balance but, at the same time, also blurs the boundaries between work and personal life.
Having lived the remote/flexible life as an Integrated Marketing and Development Communication consultant, I widely agreed with several of the research’s findings and have found that with some employer/employee discourse, scheduling and digital disconnection, even with the worrying aspects of the research, we can be one step closer to the work-life balance.
From experience, some important guidelines include:
1. Effective Monitoring of time frames: While the modern communicator and indeed several other job-related landscapes will require some flexibility, it is important to monitor the time frames that are being allocated to work and to ‘life’. How many of you can relate to being up until 3 am to get a jump start on a document? or if, you’re like me, getting a few hours in then getting up at 11:00 p.m. and working until it is ‘time to leave for the day’? Bad habits (even with good intentions) die hard and so I’ve often had to continuously remind myself about this and take decided steps to overcome this workaholic hurdle.
2. Make ‘personal life’ a priority: In line with my workaholic admission above, an important step is to make time for your personal life a deliberate effort. This has included scheduled after work activities which require me to get on up and out- a gym session, a yoga class, a spa appointment, doing a pickup, supermarket run etc. Essentially, I have forced myself out to ensure that every minute is not spent working.
3. Set Realistic Expectations: This is where the employer-employee / client-patron relationship dynamics come into play. Using reasonable time factors, will it be realistic to complete the task overnight? Often, I found that while committing a task, I’ve had to assess factors such as whether or not there are third party vendors involved and the relevant lead time needed from their end and how it affects my deliverables. Also, establish early in what is ‘appropriate communications’ in line with your personal life’s boundaries… Ask and answer questions such as: Is it ok to call after x time frame? Under what circumstances? Is it ok to whats app? Am I only email accessible? Answers to these questions will help the modern communicator to better separate the lines between work and personal space.
4. Prove Your Worth: The case for remote work/flexibility may not be easy. I’ve found that by carefully demonstrating that you are able to handle the job’s demands in and out of office has led to a process whereby trust is built. This trust too is built on how effectively and professionally you have been able to handle similar prior engagements. Put your best foot forward and manage the communication process even while you are away from an office space and ultimately, utilize this effective management to further encourage additional flexibility.
5. Know your target: I say this in just about every blog post whether it is about communication in general, communicating over the festive season or the messages that you are communicating, yet it continues to ring true. While you can follow all steps outlined above, it ultimately boils down to who your client/ employer is and where they are in the readiness cycle. Within my network, communicators have all had to deal with varying degrees of readiness. In the end, it is about how the process is managed and how you are able to convince that you will be able to deliver in tandem with the client/employer’s expectations against your own personal obligations and space requirements.
6. Disconnect Digitally: Via my Jamaican Mommies blog, I had previously written about Breaking the Social Media Curse for Better Parenting and the rules therein applies for just about every aspect of life. At the risk of having a life lived online, I am fast becoming a proponent of ‘All phones centre of the table, drinks on the first person to touch their phone’ when out with friends or “No Social Media after 10:00 p.m.” within the household space. Indeed, the same tool that has helped to facilitate remote/ flexible work can threaten to break entire relationships apart. When advocating for additional remote/flexi time, it is, therefore, critical to ensure that you do not fall prey to digital doom.
Does your job require/allow flexible/ remote work? Have you experienced challenges when proposing same? How do you manage the work and life divide on the flexible side? Share below. I’d be happy to hear some of the existing strategies you utilize and some of the challenges to date.
Shanoy Coombs is a Development Communication Consultant in the Latin America and Caribbean region. Are you Social? Connect with Shanoy on twitter via @InspiraShan and learn more about her work via the projects page.