June 30, 2020
Miami University (OH)
As a graduate student, if you had asked me about my approach to work-life balance, I would have told you I learned everything I needed to know by attending every education session there was on the topic. As an entry level professional, if you had asked me about work-life balance, I would have said, "Wait, you have a life?" As a mid-level professional, new mom, and Student Activities professional during a global pandemic, if you ask me about work-life balance I would finally have an answer for you - it doesn't exist.
Whenever the term "work-life balance" is thrown around, I imagine a see-saw in perfect balance. How many times in your life have you seen that? I bet your answer is, never. We are so wrapped up in the word "balance," that we fail to see it as what it really should be - harmony. Being successful in managing your work and your life, means accepting that they give and take from each other, and being okay with that. Giving a 60-hour work week for August move-in and taking some time to go home early the following week to play with your kids, meal prep, walk your dog, or catch up on the show you had been bingeing is okay. For whatever reason, we feel like less of a professional if we advocate for that give and take even though we know best what we need to recharge.
What is happening now that we quite literally live at work? We are managing our deadlines, video calls, and research while also juggling nap times, laundry, dishes, and admittedly, some Netflix bingeing. How is remote working going to impact workplace expectations when we return? In my experience as a supervisor, this has been an exercise in trust. The staff I work with are off on their own, in control of their schedules and their own workstyles are shining. I have learned that we don't need to be behind a desk from 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. to reimagine Welcome Weekend, to build an events calendar, or to even recognize our award winning students. By giving professionals grace, we are building trust in our staff and their abilities. By being given grace, I have been able to say no to meetings that are scheduled over putting my child down for a nap. I have been there to see my child roll over for the first time. I have worked on projects into the late evening while my house is at its quietest because I took a few hours in the afternoon to play with my child and my dogs on a sunny day.
Five years ago when I was entering the field of Higher Education, I buckled up for late nights and long hours for as many years as I chose to stay in my first position. The climate in the field at the time was, every upper level professional did their time. They worked the late nights and long hours. Now it's your turn. As a supervisor of a new professional, I will admit, six months ago that was my mindset. You have a 7:00 a.m. program board meeting once a week? Yeah, I did that for years. It's your turn.
What about now? Now that we have seen staff manage personal and professional commitments, how will we approach work to make sure it is in harmony with our lives? How as supervisors will we not only encourage but model putting our lives first so we are the best staff we can be when we are at work? We may look back on this global pandemic as the catalyst that reversed a culture of burnout among our entry level professionals. With the focus on work life harmony, we may see entry level professionals staying in their first roles for longer than 1.5-2 years. We may see their first positions becoming complimentary to their lives instead of the 60-hour work weeks that causes most new higher education professionals to become discouraged and leave the field. In a few years, the new professionals entering into the field of Higher Education will be entering a completely different environment and will be bringing with them skills that they fostered during a global pandemic.
I say all this while recognizing that the field of Higher Education has never been, and will never be, an 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. job. The very nature of our job is to serve young adults that think 12:00 a.m. is an early bedtime and that the weekend starts on Thursday. Below are a few of the little ways I have been able to find harmony over the past few years:
Turn off email notifications on your phone. A wise colleague once pointed out, "We're not sending people to the moon". We need to stop acting like everything will burn down if we aren't accessible 24/7. The work we do is important, but it also sleeps, and so should we.
Negotiate an adjusted schedule. Our program board meets at 7:00 a.m. every Wednesday. The staff advisor either leaves at 4:00 p.m. that day every week, or takes a half-day Friday once a month.
Reevaluate what you're showing up to as an advisor. There is a fine line between showing your students that you support them and being at an event just to be there. Treat your time like it has value, because it does. Work with your supervisor to figure out what their expectations are for your presence at events.
Put time and effort into training the students you work with. If you've given the students everything they need to be successful, you don't need to be there to watch them check people in for a movie at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night.
Humanize yourself to the students you work with. Boundaries are important, but I have found that students help us find our work-life harmony when they know what is important to us. They knew I valued Sunday mornings with my family, so when the conversation came around to scheduling their semesterly planning day, they were more likely to choose a Saturday afternoon because it worked for everyone, even if Sunday morning was their preferred time.
Build strong partnerships. So often, I showed up to events because I was worried the tech wouldn't work smoothly. Spoiler alert, I had no idea how to fix it. But my colleagues in the Student Union do. I know they have trained their student staff to troubleshoot. I have built good relationships with those professionals and connected our students so when something goes wrong, they communicate with me and our students communicate effectively between themselves.
Model the work-life harmony you want your students to have when they graduate. If you want them to find joy and meaning in their work as well as their lives, take what you have learned during this time at home and apply it to your work ethic and expectations. Enjoy your time on the see-saw and know that for as many times as you slam down on your behind, there will be times when you are flying high into the sky.
Tiffany Harrison is an Associate Director in the Student Activities and Cliff Alexander Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life at Miami University (OH). She has been a NACA regional volunteer for the past 6 years in both the Central and Mid America regions.