I am now nearly three months into working for myself. There is lots to like and very little not to like. I was asked the other day, “what’s the best thing about it?” That’s easy. Getting the words in the right order.
So many organisations – all of those I’ve worked for and many, many I have worked with – mouth the words “work-life balance”. They talk about flexible working, family-friendly hours and respecting boundaries. They ask you to bring your whole self to work and keep work in perspective. They talk about the need for managers to model the right behaviours and the need for leaders to set a good example. They say all these things because they want to believe them. They want them to be true. But they miss the key point – the order of the words matter. It’s not about work-life balance but life-work balance. Work should never come before life. To borrow a corny phrase, you don’t live to work.
Yes, this may seem semantic. Petty. Small. But words and emphasis matter. Work coming first sends a clear message. It sets the tone. It is in charge. It’s first amongst equals.
So often the ground rules and principles set down by an organisation fall quickly by the wayside at the first sign of a tight deadline, demanding client or situation, or the pressure of a big project. The family-friendly hours soon take a hit when your boss gets a call from an unhappy senior colleague or client and the deadline gets moved forward. It’s all hands on deck. “I wouldn’t normally ask but…..”.
The test of true life-work balance is when people and organisations under pressure put life before work and say “we can do that but not straight away” or “perhaps there is a different way of doing this” rather than immediately leaping for the “I’m sorry to ask” email and the pizza delivery number. I saw it nearly every day of my working for others life – someone somewhere being asked to sacrifice their home life – seeing their partner, going out for dinner, bath time, putting their baby to sleep, watching the match or just going home – because someone else has decided that today’s work drama should trump everything else. It doesn’t have to be like that. If organisations wasted less time on internal politics and noise, there would be so much more time to actually get the work done and respond to the unexpected. When you work for yourself you don’t have the monumental distraction of other people’s agendas, the politics of managing egos and the passing on by your boss of their stress and deadlines. Your life is your own. You get to make the choices.
I absolutely love what I am doing now. I am able to dedicate my working time to doing the very best for my clients and give it my all, whilst doing the things that are most important to me. It may not be be forever – there are some great things about being part of a team and working closely with others – but if I do go back to working for others in the future I will have a much better sense of how the life-work balance needs to work for me – I now know what good looks like – I know exactly how it should work. I have the words in the right order.