The BBC Professor Dad Moment Proves It: Work/Life Balance is Over
Last week, I laughed with the rest of the world at the viral video of political science professor Robert Kelly’s on-air home office interview with the BBC being hijacked by his tiny intruder children. I just laughed for different reasons. Five years ago, I had a moment nearly identical to Professor Kelly’s; mine just ended differently.
The world’s reflexive recognition of a workplace moment of humanity is proof of how much technology has influenced the evolution of “work/life balance” over the last ten years. We’re learning that the era of work/life balance is officially over, and we’re happily moving on.
Five years ago, I had newly returned to full time work in the high tech industry, after a ten year season of part-time consulting and full time family-ing. When I had left full time work, networking and audio conferencing technologies were just beginning to let employees stretch the cord of work life all the way into the home. By the time I returned, iPhones, wifi and videoconferencing had cut the cord completely.
My first foray back into full time work was in part of the industry that designed the technologies on which video collaboration was built. Our industry proclaimed the good news of videoconferencing as a portal to productivity, freed from the limits of geography, and designed to accelerate human flourishing; I worked as one of its evangelists.
In many respects, I represented the kind of person our marketing efforts were designed to reach. I was a working wife and mother with “skills and bills,” eager for a way to do meaningful work that would enhance the success of all the different entities of my life — my family, my community, and my company. I wanted the work that I did in those different spheres to benefit each of them, instead of them being forced to compete all the time. Being part of an industry building the technologies making this vision a reality was exciting; having a job where I was working to deliver this vision felt like a dream.
From almost my first week back to work, I experienced just how far from reality that dream still was.
Consistent with our company’s vision, my coworkers and I worked from combinations of company and home offices, distributed across the country and around the world. From the very first day, most of my work relationships were formed and maintained exclusively over video. There was no in-person onboarding, no team building, no getting to know my colleagues over lunch or after-dinner drinks. (Eating on video is one of many behaviors I quickly learned doesn’t go over well.) In short, most of my memories of my coworkers are of disembodied heads arranged in Brady Bunch formation on a screen, not of real people.
My immediate team was internationally distributed, so meetings at 6 a.m., 6 p.m., and 10p.m. were common for all of us. All of my coworkers were men, which meant they could roll out of bed 15 minutes before a crack of dawn call. I, on the other hand, had to get up two hours early to to do all the women things women have to do to look work ready,on high definition video no less, besides all of the morning kid crazy. Rinse and repeat for meetings that occurred in the middle of homework time, dinner time, bedtime, and beyond.
But the logistical dynamics were nothing compared to the social ones. When I had left the fulltime workforce, email was a new, but relatively, untested form of communication; now it had become weaponized. Online “presence” indicators, and instant messaging tools, meant that it was now possible to hold multiple “conversations” with colleagues at once. You could be “talking” with a coworker on one team while you were “in” a meeting with others, so that each conversation would only get 50% of your attention and thought. Or, you could combine the two, by talking “with” the coworkers you liked, about the coworkers you didn’t, while you were all “in” a meeting “together.”
This happened constantly. The unified collaboration industry was going through a massive transformation, and our company was fighting for its life. That battle manifested itself in the form of miscommunication, poor management, and toxic team dynamics on what felt like an hourly basis.
The day my mother-in-law instigated my own “digital gatecrashing” moment in the middle of a major presentation was the day I knew something had to change.
At least three days a week, my mother-in-law, Mary, helped me keep the work/life scale from tipping too far in the wrong direction by bringing my kids home from school and helping with homework at my house. One afternoon I was in my home office, delivering a presentation to 50 struggling sales leaders around the country. Mary had hit a logistical snag with kid pickup that required my signature on a piece of paper. I had told her that I was going to be “on a really important call” for the next hour and could only be disturbed for emergencies. She decided this qualified. She silently opened the door and walked into my office (because, yes, I had forgotten to lock it), gently placing a piece of paper with “PLEASE SIGN” scribbled on it on my desk, then stood quietly by my desk. In her 77 year old mind, she was simply a silent, invisible presence, while I was on the phone.
She had forgotten that the phones now had cameras, and giant screens.
The memories of what happened next are a little bit blurry, due to both time and the lingering trauma. I’ve blocked out whatever I said as my mother in law’s hand and the note silently disrupted my field of vision, because I’m not totally certain what level of NSFW it was. I vaguely remember the combination “startled jump and swivel” move I made to see what was happening. I do remember the high-pitched tittering noise I made, and the frozen, wide-eyed smile I offered my camera as I scribbled my signature then turned back to my meeting and tried to regain my composure. But what I’ll never forget is the sight of my coworkers’ faces, stony and silent, and the sound of surreptitious keyboard clicking on IM backchannels, as my moment of home intruded on my work. My mother in law and I were both physically present in my home, while my coworkers were only “in” it via video. But in that moment, happening in my own home, my mother in law was the one whose presence was the most unwelcome. And the sound of my coworkers’ disdain was deafening.
That was the moment when I began to see how my work life wasn’t just leaning into my home; it was actively attempting to colonize it. After too many more moments like it, I exercised the rarest of privileges for a working woman in the Bay Area — the financial safety coming from a spouse with a job that covered the bills — and I quit.
Fast forward to 2017, when a political science professor’s home office interview is being broadcast by the BBC to an audience of hundreds of thousands, his pint sized daughter thinks Daddy is Skype-ing with Grandma, and she decides she wants to hang out.
Five years ago, my moment of home life breaking into my work life, and the moments that followed, saw me temporarily pushed out of work life altogether. Last week, a moment of home life, in the form of a three year old girl sporting fashion statement eyeglasses and attitude. all. day., burst into work life and told it to take a seat.
And the world cheered.
We’re evolving, and my world is evolving too.
I’m still in the technology industry, but now I’m working for a business-to-business sales enablement firm as a solution consultant. My fellow consultants and I divvy up project assignments and timelines collaboratively around our skills and expertise, our schedules, and our personal and financial goals. I divide my time between my home office and client sites, and visits to my company’s corporate office are rare, but always enjoyable. The newly built campus has all the modern amenities of a typical Silicon Valley company, like open floor plans with booth seating and huddle rooms, and a foosball table in the generously stocked lunch room. Outside, there’s a large pond surrounded by a walkway, ideal for “walk and talk” meetings. (Confirmation is pending on whether or not the pond is actually stocked for lunchtime fishing breaks; the reason for my assumption is based on the fact that the pond, and the company, is in Little Rock, Arkansas, not Silicon Valley.)
I’m able to put my strategic thinking and communicating skills I use in my professional life to work at home as well, coaching my teenagers through school challenges, and serving non profits I care about. And I’m already starting to plan our family’s summer vacation to London, knowing that the new rhythms of my life are such that I can take three weeks off in a row without everything falling apart.
The industry in which I formerly worked continues to struggle with its transformation, financially and in every other way. They’ve evolved their messaging, and their work policies, touting the strategic value of everyone working in the same physical space. They’re consolidating (expensive) office locations, and mandating that more employees return to working in them. Employees whose “permanent work from home” status had been assured when they were hired, are once again struggling to find equilibrium. They’re being pushed back onto congested freeways and into far from home offices, or being pushed out, forced to “voluntarily” resign if they don’t have the resources, or the sheer will, to make the transition.
My company is flourishing.
When we view “work life” and “home life” as separate, sterile entities, and set them up in competition with each other, one of them will always, necessarily lose. But the more we are willing, and able, to approach our work lives and homes lives organically, and arrange them in ways so that each part nourishes the others, all of it will thrive.
Inevitably, this way of working and living this way will mean that one piece of our life will show up in another in an unexpected way. But when it does, we’ll all enjoy a good laugh.