Be intentional about cultivating flexibility in your career
Cambridge Dictionary defines flexibility (in one of many definitions) as “able to bend or to be bent easily without breaking.”
Merriam-Webster defines balance (in one of many definitions) as “mental and emotional steadiness.”
Everyone these days says that they want more balance, but my first question when I hear people say that is, “What exactly does that mean?” More flexibility in their schedule? More time? More variety in their work or in their hobbies and pastimes? As a career counselor who hears people say, “I want more balance in my life,” several times a week, I find that it’s not a word that people easily define. But it’s quite necessary to define it if one hopes to cultivate it.
What does work-life balance look like?
According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends report, 63% of job seekers cited work-life balance as a top priority when choosing a new job. While job hunters also cited compensation and benefits (60%) and company culture and colleagues (40%) as priorities, work-life balance looms larger, suggesting that the COVID pandemic, while the source of significant disruption and even trauma for most employees, gave people a chance to re-think the time and mental space that work occupies in their lives. As a result, the Great Resignation has empowered workers to demand not just more flexibility and freedom from their employers but more empathy and mental health support.
While employers are responding – offering more remote opportunities and flexible schedules, investing in employee wellness programs, and cultivating more human-centric work cultures that offer moral and mental health support. The 2022 Global Talent Trends report also revealed an 83% increase in the word “flexibility” and a whopping 143% increase in the term “well-being” in job postings from 2019 to 2022.
The report also revealed that employees who quit jobs in 2021 are now more likely enjoying higher pay, greater work-life balance, and more opportunities for advancement. Many people who quit in 2021 also went on to retire or start businesses, sparking a dramatic surge in new business formations.
Though employees may crave more work-life balance, they risk finding themselves in the crush of a high-pressure, overwhelming job if they are not truly clear about what exactly constitutes work-life balance for themselves as individuals. Changing careers and jobs is a difficult undertaking, and I find that a meaningful professional shift is only possible when one has deeply considered their inner motivations and, more importantly, all of the short- and long-term consequences of a career pivot.
When clients considering a career pivot seek my counsel, I first ask them to complete a series of reflective questions. I require them to dig deep to reveal all of the underlying reasons that are motivating a need for a change. This usually spurs thoughts of the sources of dissatisfaction in their work and personal realms while also attempting to put them in touch with the sources of joy, mindfulness, connection, and mastery in their lives.
What strikes me is that nearly everyone expresses a need for more “balance” and/or “flexibility” at some point in their answers to these reflective questions even though none of the questions specifically mention either of these words. And this need for balance and flexibility can run from the mild to the acute/bordering-on-burnout level and everything in between.
Even the definition of the words balance and flexibility vary from person to person. Balance for some means having a variety of tasks in their work or a range of hobbies and pastimes they’re able to pursue. If people aren’t able to plan camping trips or nights out with friends or partners due to a demanding work schedule, they may feel out of balance.
Some people have a boring day job that helps them fuel an off-the-clock passion like music or painting. If the day job encroaches too much on the mental space or time one needs for their passion, they may feel out of balance.
Still others are bored by repetitive tasks in their work or duties that fail to challenge or inspire them like it once did. They may crave more variety in their day or the chance to learn and grow to keep their mind activated and engaged. They may also feel out of balance.
For others balance is about having time to themselves or more time with partners, children, and friends. This type of balance is usually rooted in a need to address their own self-care, a priority I ask all of my clients to personally consider and first define for themselves as individuals. It’s a tired cliche, I know, but I’m not above dragging out the analogy of the airplane passenger in an emergency who needs to put the mask on herself before attempting to put it on someone else. In other words, you’re not doing anyone in your family or friend circle any favors or offering them genuine support if you’re not addressing your own needs first.
This time-with-loved-ones type of balance is the one I suspect people most decided to prioritize as a result of the COVID pandemic (if they didn’t already, that is). Even if people did think they prioritized time with their partners, children and friends before March 2020, there’s nothing like a worldwide shutdown for a disease posing a mortal threat to make someone realize that their work actively needs to take a backseat to more pressing concerns in their personal lives.
Since most people were forced to juggle their professional responsibilities to attend to emergent caregiving needs during the darkest days of the pandemic (i.e., helping kids with online schooling or grocery shopping for an elderly parent), workers in many cases re-evaluated their personal and professional priorities. In the end, many people likely decided that while work was a highly valued part of their lives, caring for loved ones and attending to their own self-care ranked as a much higher priority when push came to shove.
When reconsidering the ranking of the professional and the personal, a person’s need for balance converges most noticeably with their need for flexibility. We hear people often use those terms in tandem: “I’d like a job with more balance and flexibility,” much like we might say, “salt and pepper.” Like these ubiquitous seasonings, they are separate and distinct, but they do tend to play well with one another. (Can I just say that Salt-N-Pepa also play well together? Sorry. I was a teen in the 1980s – I couldn’t resist.)
What does work-life flexibility look like?
According to the LinkedIn TalentBlog, "LinkedIn data shows that flexibility has become a key determinant of employee satisfaction. Workers are 2.6 times more likely to report being happy and 2.1 times more likely to recommend working at a company when they can choose their location and their work schedules.”
No matter how one defines balance for oneself, flexibility makes balance possible. But, again, people tend to define flexibility much differently. Some want more flexibility in their schedule (rigidly scheduled hours vs. the ability to schedule one’s work hours). Others want more flexibility in their place of work (home vs. the office vs. the neighborhood coffee shop). Still others want flexibility in the number of hours spent working each week and the ability to take time off to take trips and spend time with loved ones who live far away.
Flexibility can also be another way to determine how one spends their time at work – a desire to decide what projects they tackle, what problems they get to solve, what skills they prefer to develop, and even what people they choose to collaborate with. In this way, flexibility converges with the need for autonomy that, according to Daniel Pink’s famous Ted Talk, shows up at the top of most people’s list of professional motivators.
However you define balance and flexibility, if you feel the need for more of either or both in your life, ask yourself first – what exactly would a balanced and flexible personal life look like? Write it down for as long as you have something meaningful to say. Write a separate definition for the word balance and a separate definition for the word flexibility.
Once you’ve done that and are satisfied with what you’ve written, answer this question – what exactly would a balanced and flexible work life look like? Again, write a separate definition for the word balance and a separate definition for the word flexibility.
Give yourself permission to imagine a truly balanced life with ample flexibility might. It’s likely that the steps to make this possible are not as impossible as you think. Ask for support from loved ones – ask other members of your household to help with laundry and dishwashing. Hire someone to complete time-consuming tasks like tax preparation and yard work. Talk to your boss about flex schedules, remote work possibilities, or negotiating more vacation time. If you have direct reports, delegate more tasks and responsibilities.
If this battle for balance and flexibility feels overwhelming, take a balanced approach. Find one thing each week to take off your plate that will add even 15 minutes more time to your calendar. If you add 15 minutes each week for eight weeks, you’ll have two extra hours of time to spend as you see fit. Think of what you could do with just two extra hours per week. I hope something you can do for yourself comes to mind.
Kristin Schuchman, MSW is a career counselor and author based in Portland, Oregon who works with creative and mission-driven professionals. She writes resumes and coaches individuals seeking support for career indecision, next steps, work re-entry, advancement, starting a business, and work-life-balance. She offers a free 30-minute Zoom or phone session and presently works with clients remotely. You can find her books The DIY Website Workbook and Jump Start: How to redirect a career that has stalled, lost direction or reached a crossroads on Amazon.