June 23, 2017

Let me ask you: When did you decide that your commitment to work was the most important commitment in your life?

Chew on that for a minute.

The headline interrupted my morning coffee in mid-swallow:

“Walmart is asking employees
to deliver packages
on their way home from work.”

The story in The Washington Post on Walmart’s latest strategy for competing with Amazon said many of the plan’s details were not yet available. It did say employees who made deliveries would be paid, and that the delivery gigs would be voluntary.

Reading that Walmart was asking its employees to work on the way home from work hardly surprised me. It’s Walmart, after all. This is the company that, according to a new report, punishes employees for medical absences. Make deliveries on the way home from work? Who’s surprised?

Just the latest blow to work-life balance.

Then I recalled a conversation I had with a mid-level editor at Poynter a few months back.

We were about to begin a session on how we prioritize our activities each day. To prepare for the session, I had asked the participants to keep a log of their entire work day — everything they did — on one day before coming to Poynter.

“You asked us to write down everything we did from the time we reached the parking lot until we left for home,” the editor said. “But by the time I got to the parking lot, I’d already been working for two hours.

“My day starts when I wake up and check my email.”

He’s right, of course. Employees in news organizations (and, to be sure, many other businesses) frequently start working hours before they leave home. They also work while traveling to and from the office and they work some more after they return home, sometimes for hours.

Related Training: 40 Better Hours: Improve your workweek

I realize this is not a new phenomenon. I once had a boss who, as I was leaving work after another 11-hour day, asked me:

“Half-day today?” He was smiling. To this day, I’m not sure whether he was joking.

But today’s situation is worse. Technology makes it too easy for you to work anytime, and all the time. Understaffing complicates matters further, as companies keep cutting and managers are left to stretch a single bed-sized sheet over a king-sized mattress.

Too much work, too few people, too little time.

And here’s the capper. Management has a collaborator in this scheme:

You. (And me. Heck, I’m writing this on a Saturday morning.)

Are we unwilling collaborators? I’d love to say yes, of course we are. But like most complex situations, this one defies easy answers. Think about it.

Do you check email on your day off? Or on vacation? Many employees assume they’re supposed to; others rationalize they want to avoid falling way behind. Just know that every time you do email on your day off, you perpetuate a system that assumes you’re always on the clock. Do you return messages or emails just before climbing into bed? Or in the middle of the night? Did you accept responsibility for a seven-day work product (Sports section, social media report, etc.) without an assistant?

All of those choices contribute to the illusion that your newsroom has a system that, despite the reduced staff, is working.

It’s not working. And don’t kid yourself. The joint failure of bosses and staffers to find an acceptable balance between work and the other commitments in their lives will have an impact. Maybe it already has.

It almost cost me my marriage.

I was a young mid-level editor working in Baltimore, and it was a time of intoxicating change at the paper. New management, new ideas, new opportunities. I routinely worked 10, 11, 12 hours—and convinced myself that I needed to be there for every one of them.

Donna, home with our new son, wasn’t so convinced. She, as usual, was right. I was choosing to be at work.

The weeks passed and we talked less and less. During those few hours when I was home, I was exhausted; I was not much of a father and even less of a husband.

Thank God, Donna finally confronted me. She said she had no interest in being a single parent, and I had to make some choices.

For the first time in my life, I had to answer that question:

What exactly was the most important commitment in my life? Work? Or family?

Looking back on that time, I know that women had routinely answered this question far more consciously and honestly than men. Not that they had much choice; our culture answered the question for them. Women were expected to leave their jobs at some point and “have kids.” And not just bear children; they were expected to raise them. That, of course, effectively brought the careers of many women to an abrupt end.

It’s hard to overstate the hypocrisy of it all. Those women who chose not to have children were labeled careerists (while the men who put job ahead of family were “dedicated providers”). Moreover, women allowed men like me to dodge the question; they honored their own commitment to family and shouldered mine, too. Until, like Donna, they said: Enough.

Maybe you can see that day coming for you. Maybe your partner (man or woman) is asking if you ever put down that iPhone. Maybe you see how unhappy the family is that you need to stop by the office for a few minutes, like you always do, turning their day at the beach into a half-day. Maybe your partner no longer waits to eat until you arrive home.

Maybe your home is quieter than it used to be.

When did your commitment to work become the most important commitment in your life?

No matter what level you occupy in your organization, you have a stake in dealing with this — for yourself and, if you’re a manager, for the people you direct. And you might have an opportunity right now.

Throughout the industry, many newsrooms are rethinking workflows. The goal is to abandon processes and schedules that were designed to produce a newspaper and adopt workflows that support both digital and print production.

Why not seize this moment and address the balance question? What if managers and employees re-imagined the work to accomplish two objectives: To better serve the audience and to allow journalists to honor their commitments to work and family.

When Donna confronted me with my need to choose, she didn’t ask me to pick work or family; she asked me to return the “and” to the equation. Work and family.

In practical terms, it meant that if I was to regain credibility in my house, I had to stop working late unless I really needed to be there. And when I wasn’t needed, I had to come home. (Which ironically, I very much wanted to do.)

Did I ever achieve perfect balance? No. But for the next three decades, when I called home and said I had to work late, Donna believed me — and she knew I was also making my time at home the best it could be for all of us.

We’ll be married 42 years in September.

Let me offer you several thoughts about addressing this issue. Let’s start with you, bosses.

With so much to get done every day, can a boss afford to take this on?

Here are three good reasons for tackling this issue: First, the work will improve. People — whether they are married or single, have children or don’t — work better when they have a life outside of work. (They certainly bring a better, more focused self to work when they aren’t dealing with disappointment at home. )

Second, newsrooms have been talking for years about the need to stop doing work that isn’t resonating with the audience. Enough talking. While we’re (finally) refocusing the staff on the most relevant work, why not mindfully determine a reasonable time frame for doing it?

Third, addressing the balance issue will help build a culture in which staff believe their organization values them. Doughnuts only get a boss so far. Managers who help their staffs live a fulfilling life have a real impact on their newsroom culture.

What should a boss do first?

Be clear with your employees what you expect of them. Do you want your emails answered at 11 p.m.? (If not, stop sending them.) Do you expect your local editor — the one who no longer has an assistant — to call in (or come in) on weekends? (If not, work with the local editor to figure out how to get the work done when she’s not there.) Do you want your digital editor to call into the 8 a.m. meeting and be in the office until 8 p.m.? (Or, more likely, do you have a clear idea of the work you want the digital editor to get done? If so, help him devise a workflow that completes that work in a reasonable number of hours.)

How can an employee talk with the boss about this issue?

What a sad question, eh? If you have a boss who has made it clear that he or she isn’t concerned about your life, that’s one thing. (Work on your resume. You deserve better.)

But as much as bosses treasure staffers who routinely go the extra mile, most do not want people to ruin their lives. Talk to your boss. Get clear about her expectations; ask for guidance about prioritizing your responsibilities, and propose how you would like to approach your day. And don’t make this conversation a one-shot deal; keep the conversation going. Balance is a moving target.

How do I avoid sounding like I’m whining?

You’ve probably already crossed that bridge. If you are a whiner, you’ve already made that clear by regularly complaining about your colleagues, your bosses, the quality of the pizza on election night. If, on the other hand, you have a reputation for hard work, your boss is likely to pay close attention when a valued staffer is comes by to say she’s having trouble. Go for it.

Practically speaking, how can I decide when it’s time to stop working and call it a day?

For starters, don’t wait until everything is finished — because it’s never finished. Right? So, deciding when you’re done for the day actually needs to begin much earlier in your shift. Use whatever systems and processes you have to help you. For example, come out of a morning story meeting and make a list of what you need to get done that day.

If it helps you, run the list by your boss. Make sure you leave enough air in the list to deal with the unanticipated — you know things will happen. But if it’s obvious to you that completing your list will require too many hours, you need a Plan B. Who can help me? What doesn’t need to get done? What can wait until tomorrow?

If you get to the end of the day and there’s still work on your desk, it’s not too late to ask the same questions: Ask if it needs to be done today. If not, leave it until tomorrow (or just kill it.) Second, if it needs to be done, ask someone else to do it. Only stay and do it yourself if it absolutely needs to be done and you are the only person who can do it. (And come to work the next day determined to adjust the process so that you turn less frequently to Option 3.)

One thing is clear: Balancing work and life outside work is not just a management issue. It’s a question we all need to own.

If you need inspiration, just think about that question:

Have you, perhaps unconsciously, made your job the most important commitment in your life?

How do you feel about that?

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

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