Using flexible schedules to balance life: How 3 parents make the puzzle pieces fit

photo-277Laura’s note: Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running some guest posts. Today’s comes from Brie Weiler Reynolds, director of online content at FlexJobs. I’ve interviewed the FlexJobs CEO, Sara Sutton Fell, several times about remote work and flexible scheduling, and her team agreed to do a post about how their own mostly-virtual company makes flexibility work for employees.

by Brie Weiler Reynolds

Life is like a puzzle. If the pieces aren’t put together properly, your day is likely to feel disjointed, as though you’re being pulled in all directions.

On the other hand, when you have the power to place the puzzle pieces of your day so that they naturally fit together, your life starts to feel rather fluid, and you’re able to see the big picture, even as you transition from one piece to the next.

But how can you fit all the different pieces of your work-life puzzle together, in a way that works best for your personal situation?

These three women, all working moms and all part of the FlexJobs team, have designed their daily puzzles in ways that work best for them. They agreed to share their experiences and offer some tips that might work for the rest of us.

“The kids’ schedule directs our life”

Kristin Thomas is the director of employer outreach at FlexJobs, and she’s also mom to twins Jackson and Redford, 8; Bodie, 6; and Milo, 2. When asked about how she divides up her time between work and life, she says, “The kids’ schedule directs our life at the moment and likely will for the next decade or so. Thankfully I have a job that is flexible so that I can tailor my schedule around theirs.”

In describing her typical day (if there is such a thing), Kristin says, “Around 7:15 we all make our way downstairs to eat breakfast, pack snacks and lunches, and get the kids to school or preschool by 8:15. A lot happens in that short hour. Luckily, I work from home so I can get started as soon as the kids are out the door. I work until kids start trickling in around 4pm. And if I want to catch up on a project or emails I sometimes work after the kids go to bed.”

This “split shift” schedule, which Laura has discussed before, is one of the major ways that working parents  accomplish a lot. That’s why flexible schedules and the option to work from home are so important. The other key to Kristin’s success is focusing on unplugging whenever the kids are home. She says, “It’s not fair when the kids are telling you a story about recess if your face is buried in your phone or laptop. They need to know that you are listening. And it’s not fair to your work to be responding to an email while distracted. Sometimes I need to use the timer on the stove to wrap up my work day. If I tell the kids, ‘I just need ten more minutes to work and then I’ll be done,’ I need to keep that promise. For me, a loud beeping noise helps.”

To keep this balance going, Kristin recommends setting strict(ish) work hours: “Have set hours for work and family, as much as possible. I am not perfect at this yet, but I am working on it.”

“Schedule time for activities you enjoy”

In 2007, Sara Sutton Fell decided to found a new company–while pregnant with her first child–so she’s experienced all sorts of work-life balance dilemmas. Eight years and two children later, she’s been able to find a sense of balance in her every day life, thanks to keeping a detailed schedule for work and family. Says Sara, “I’ve heard this advice given before and it’s true–schedule time for the activities you enjoy. Otherwise, they can quickly get lost in the shuffle.”

On her matrix of color-coded family and work calendars (she uses the free Google Calendar), Sara includes things like her twice a week yoga class, a weekly date night with her husband, and a monthly girl’s night out. She also includes kid-related logistics such as reminders to meet her children at the bus stop after school. Yes, she’s the CEO of a growing company with a team of 50, but the mission of her company is to help people find jobs that fit their lives. “I want to send the message to my staff and to our customers that work-life balance is important, and that flexible work options help you find and keep it,” she says. “It’s important that I walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.”

Sara’s advice to anyone trying to find a better balance is to speak up and request flexible work options, and if your employer won’t budge, consider finding one that will. “I hear it from my team, and I experience it every day. Flexible work options like working from home and flexible scheduling really do make a huge difference in the quality of our lives and our ability to have more control over your own day. Work flexibility is freeing in a way, because it takes the pressure off of arbitrary schedule guidelines that don’t necessarily support you being as productive as you can be, both in work and in life.”

“Be realistic”

Carol Cochran, FlexJobs’ director of human resources and mom to Sophia, 11, and Alex, 9, doesn’t fret about the packed schedule each of her kids have. Instead, she finds opportunities within those schedules to get work done. “They are both very active–Sophia dances and Alex plays hockey–with classes and practices nearly every day. If I’m dropping her at the studio, I generally come back and work for another hour or so. If I’m on hockey duty, I’ll take my iPad or laptop to the rink (gotta love free wifi!) and work on some things there. I am fortunate to be able to work remotely from any location and to have a flexible schedule,” says Carol.

As for work-life balance, Carol says this: “Balance is a funny word. To me, it indicates everything gets exactly what it needs at all times. That’s a lot of pressure and simply not realistic.” Instead of focusing on finding that elusive balance, Carol says, “Be realistic. Know that there will always be something you are giving up, and that’s okay.” Often times, what you choose and what you give up are within your control. “I appreciate the ability to be a professional adult who can manage her time as she sees fit,” adds Carol.

For moms in a household where both parents work, there’s often a sense of pressure to do everything, another unrealistic goal. Carol advises: “Hold your family accountable. They will need to help out so that you don’t spend all your non-working hours grocery shopping and cleaning.”

The Ultimate Goal

Ultimately, finding work-life balance (or integration, or fit) means getting to know your own situation. Then, use that understanding to better divide your time between all the things you need and want to do. Where do the 168 hours of your week go? What puzzle pieces are you trying to fit together, and is it working? Paying closer attention to your time and how you use it–and taking as much control over your time as you can through flexible work options–is really the first step toward this goal. Everyone’s methods and outcomes for balancing their lives will be slightly different, but that’s really the point, isn’t it?

Brie Weiler Reynolds is the Director of Online Content at FlexJobs and a contributing writer for 1 Million for Work Flexibility. FlexJobs is the award-winning site for telecommuting and flexible jobs, listing thousands of pre-screened, legitimate, and professional-level work-from-home, flexible schedule, part-time, and freelance jobs. Brie provides career and job search advice through the FlexJobs blog.

Laura’s note: If your job has some flexibility, which of these techniques do you use? Split shifts? Working at sports practices? Have you ever left a job because of a lack of flexibility?

3 thoughts on “Using flexible schedules to balance life: How 3 parents make the puzzle pieces fit

  1. Because I work for a library that is open evenings, I am able to work two nights a week which allows me to be part of preschool field trips and handle drop off and pick ups. I also am able to work from home one day a week. And while I haven’t left a job due to lack of flexibility last year I choose not to take a new position due to the loss of my current flexibility which is important to me while my daughters are young.

    1. @Alissa W – that last point is actually an interesting one that organizations are struggling with. A lot of companies have gotten their heads around individual contributors doing remote work, or having flexible hours, but the rule on managers is…no. But the net result of that is that you have many self-disciplined, high performers refusing to raise their hands for promotions. Because they don’t want to give up their perks! As an organization, that’s not exactly a great outcome.

  2. I don’t understand the “no remote managers” rule. My husband has had two at different companies, and it’s worked just fine. They use a lot of IM and videoconference and meet up in person 2-3 times a year. Hubby’s entire team is on the East Coast, except for one guy in TX and we’re in Seattle. They make it work.

    We have probably used all of those techniques for flexibility in the past 5 years since we had kids. Each of us has done the compressed work week schedule. I worked part-time for a LONG time, with a schedule of 2 or 3 full days in the office and the other 2 or 3 days off. I now work entirely from home.

    Our kids are in preschool/daycare for 6 hours a day so we do a staggered schedule where I get them ready and take them to school, then start my work day at 9 and go through until 5 or 6. Hubby starts his workday at 6am and works until 3 when it’s time to pick up the girls. He feeds and entertains them and sometimes even makes dinner 😉 Both of us often work a few hours after the kids go to bed, though it’s not my preferred schedule.

    Having a smartphone and a job that seems to consist mostly of sending emails 😉 makes it convenient to get work done while I’m out and about, too.

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