For years, the mandates for more work-life flexibility were directed at organizations and management, but workplace expert Cali Williams Yost says the boss or company is no longer the one to solely blame for flexibility failure. Increasingly the challenge is for risk-averse employees, especially in the current economic climate, to focus less on sweeping transformative change and instead make small, everyday shifts in work style. But employers aren't completely off the hook. They need to step up as well, and train employees to navigate a world where work and life boundaries have merged.

Williams Yost is the author of the new book "Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day." She chatted with EBN about the evolution of her work-life philosophy, the tweak it concept and why employees need to take responsibility for their own work-life fit.

 

Congratulations on the book. Have you received good feedback about it?

Yes, I feel there is this hunger for people to have some sense of control, that they can take some control back from what seems like a very overwhelming work and life situation to them, that the steps they can take are very doable and manageable, and won't be so drastic that it will put their job in jeopardy, and that small things really do matter. If they just had a practice, a simple practice that they followed on an ongoing basis, they could capture a lot of the flexibility that seems very overwhelming right now and actually harness it and use it the way they want it to be used.

Organizations have not really thought about the fact that they are not training people how to be successful in this new world where there are no boundaries. They haven't even given it a thought, and they wonder why people are overwhelmed. It's because the boundaries aren't there anymore, and you haven't told them how to be successful on and off the job.

 

Explain this whole concept of tweaking. What does that mean exactly?

This is the metaphor I use to describe it: Imagine that all of the work and personal activities that you have to ultimately complete are part of a big, beautiful buffet. You cannot possibly devour everything on that buffet immediately. You just can't do it. You'd get sick. The tweak-it practice is the slotted tray that you take up to the buffet every week, and depending upon your bandwidth and what you have going on already, you will have a certain number of empty slots that you can put either a small work tweak into - a small work action that's meaningful for you - and/or a personal action that's meaningful for you.

You will intentionally, over time, each trip back up to that buffet, ultimately cover all the different areas that create a foundation of well-being and order. But you're doing it intentionally and in a way that is manageable and doable. That's what the tweak it practice is. The tweak-it practice really allows you to, each week, deliberately and intentionally decide what you're going to fit into your work and life for the next seven days. Then, as I like to say, the next seven days, you rinse and repeat.

 

 

How did this concept start?

I originally wrote a book in 2004 that essentially shows people how to do a major reset in their work-life fit - how to put together a formal flexibility plan that officially changes how, when and where you work for a period of time. I thought that's what people needed help with, but as I went around promoting that book, people would say things like: "I can't even get a haircut. I can't even get a date." I'm thinking: "What is going on?" Clearly, this disappearance of the clocks on walls that used to tell us when work ended and the rest of life began was having an effect. People were struggling to figure out their day to day.

I started studying people I called the work-life fit "naturals." These were the folks I would meet in the workplace who just seemed to figure it out. We were all thrown into the flexibility pool, and the rest of us are hanging on the sides figuring out how to move forward. These are the folks that just started swimming and don't really understand what's so hard about it. I started studying them, and I realized that what they do is really quite simple.

I translated their secrets into the tweak-it practice. Each week you start out by celebrating success. What the naturals do is, they don't spend a lot of time on what they didn't accomplish the week before. They really give themselves credit for what they did do. That's different than the rest of us. We tend to really get bummed out about whatever commitment we were going to try to do and didn't happen. They don't focus on that so much. If they get 60% done of what they had planned, they feel great.

 

You make the point that no one is training employees about how to manage their work-life fit.

I believe that knowing how to manage your work-life fit day to day and at major life transitions is a modern skill set we all need to succeed [at] but nobody has. It needs to be part of the core curriculum, career curriculum, not an optional elective, how work-life is seen. To make it part of the training issue, I think, moves it from something that's seen as separate and optional to something that is core.

 

I kind of see employers rolling their eyes a little bit and thinking, "Isn't this just basic time management?" and "Why do I need to train my employees to do this?" First of all, is that accurate? Second of all, what's your response?

That is the bias. Here's the reality: Twenty years ago, clocks on walls told us where work ended and the parts of our life began. Over the last two decades, technology has exploded, the global economy has expanded, and the clocks on walls have disappeared for many employees. Therefore, they need to be trained how to thoughtfully and deliberately fit their work and personal responsibilities together in a way that allows them to be their best on and off the job, to be their healthiest, to be their most focused, to be their most engaged. That is what is missing.

Now employers can't tell people necessarily where those boundaries are because everybody's work is different and everybody's life is different. In fact, there's greater flexibility in how, when and where we work. But we're not training people how to capture that flexibility and use it. People are feeling very overwhelmed and very reactive, not in control. We have to give them the tools and the skills to put in some control.

It is about what's going to happen when, which is time management. Today, it's also where it's going to happen, and it has to be how it's going to happen. That extra layer of collaboration, coordination and communication is what sets this new skill apart from traditional time management. Where is it going to happen? More and more people have to decide, "Am I going to work in the office? Am I going to do this in a remote location to get it done the best I can do it? Maybe do it at home? Am I going to do it at night? How am I collaborating with, coordinating and communicating with my team, the manager, my family, my friends in order to make all of that happen?" There is an extra piece of that puzzle that takes it beyond traditional time management.

 

So, what would that training look like?

First and most prominent is how to manage your everyday work-life fit. What that looks like is a simple weekly practice where you sit down once a week. You start by recognizing and celebrating what you did get done at work and in the other parts of your life, more meaningful actions that help you be your best. Celebrate whatever you got done and recognize it.

Step two is keeping a combined work and personal calendar and priority list. You look at that combined calendar and priority list. Look at what you have already committed to on and off the job. You ask yourself, "What do I want? What do I want more of? What do I want less of? What's missing? Would I want to continue?" Then, when you see a gap between what's happening and what you just realized from that reflection, you pick from the big, beautiful buffet of work, personal and career potential options. You pick, given your bandwidths for that week, small actions that will help you be your best. Then, you add them to your combined calendar and priority list for the coming seven days. Then, you repeat it again seven days later.

Over time, if you do that consistently, you will build a foundation of well-being and order that helps you be your best on and off the job. That, for too many people right now, is missing.

My research has consistently shown most of us do not even follow these simple steps because we don't know we have to. We are not told, and we are not trained. That's why an organization needs to introduce these simple, basic, get-started weekly practices.

 

How would that be implemented?

I think every organization has to look and see where they touch their employees in terms of skill building. Whatever point, wherever that skill building happens, insert that work-life skill set. In other words, [with] new employees [is the] perfect time. "This is how we do things here. Let me introduce you to our skill set, our work-life skill-set training." It could also be at different levels of the organization. At each point where you get promoted to another level, if you are given a set of skills for that next level, insert it there. You're a new manager, insert it there. Leadership training, insert it there to remind people. I also think that there should be a refresher offered consistently.

You make the point that employees need to step up and assert control for their own work-life fit. Are people shocked by this assertion that it's their responsibility and no one else's? Isn't that almost like blaming the victim?

That's a great, important question. I believe that in today's workplace, it's a partnership between the employer and the employee. According to much of the research, [somewhere] between 62% and 80% of employees say they have some work flexibility, whether it's day-to-day or formal flexibility, but only 17% of employees are trained how to use that flexibility.

That is an example of where many employers, whether it's deliberate or just organic, are saying: "You have some flexibility in how, when and where work is done." That's just one side of the partnership. Unfortunately, employees don't know how to reach out to capture that flexibility, wherever that may be, and then use it to manage their work-life fit because they haven't been trained.

The other piece of that puzzle would be a partnership where a manager would understand how to have a conversation within a team about solutions that would work for the business and for the people in the team. That's the organization side of the partnership, but then the individual employee needs to understand, "Okay, so what do I need to do in my work-life fit in partnership with my manager and my team? Then how do I communicate with everybody?" That's the employee's side of the partnership.

That's really the part I'm focusing on with "Tweak It." I'm assuming and hoping that what should get done on the employer's side is happening. If it is happening, then I'm giving people the tools to capture it and use it.

Let's say it's not happening on the employer side. I actually don't think we can wait. I don't think employees can really wait for that to happen. I think there's a lot they can do on their own. That's the other part I'm trying to give people: "Okay, your employer is not providing you with that flexibility. Your employer is not necessarily training your managers this way in creating a culture where work-life is important, but you still can do something. Here is a practice that can get you started that some people probably won't even notice."

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