London-based banking professional Helen Wright sets intentional boundaries between work, personal, and family commitments.
Intentional boundaries make multiple roles work
Helen Wright is a Risk and Assurance manager for a large European bank based in London, managing a team of 7 distributed across the UK. She lives in North London with her husband and twin boys and works as flexibly as possible to maintain as much of a happy work-life balance as can be achieved with toddlers.
A typical day
Helen has more of a typical week than a typical day, due to her flexible working arrangements. Some days, she works in the office, and other days she works from home. Some days, she is not working, but available, and other days she is not working at all.
She has an arrangement with her company that lets her determine when she works as long as she works 28 hours a week and meets her professional objectives. She tries to work around the times that match her childcare arrangements, which she has on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so she gets the majority of her productive work done in those days. On Mondays and Fridays, she is with her boys and gets a bit of work, such as email, planning, and professional reading, done in the evenings.
Monday evenings are allocated to planning. She knows if she doesn’t do this, her entire week can get derailed, so it is a high-priority task for her.
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she commutes to her office in London.
On Thursdays, Helen works from home, so she tries to fit in a run or at least a walk outside and get some fresh air.
On the mornings of commuting days, her husband gets the children ready and drops them off at childcare, so she gets herself ready and goes off to work. This allows her to get an early start to work, and consequently, get off work early so she can pick the boys up in the evening. This arrangement has worked well for them.
She listens to business-related podcasts on her hour-long commute to switch her brain into work mode.
On Fridays, Helen has her boys again, but she lets her colleagues know that she’s available on Whatsapp if they need her urgently to review an email or read a paper or jump on a quick call.
On Saturdays and Sundays, she and her husband both keep their phone off and commit to family time.
Biggest productivity challenges
Helen’s flexible work arrangement comes with a set of challenges.
First, setting clear boundaries takes purposeful persistence. When Helen first went back to work after her maternity leave, she struggled with guilt from working flexibly. For example, if someone scheduled a meeting with her on days she didn’t work, she would apologize for not being available and explain why. However, she has learned not to apologize anymore. Instead, she simply tells them that time doesn’t work for her and provides alternative times that do.
Working flexibly also requires delegating, which Helen isn’t naturally good at, but having a good team comprised of people she trusts is a great help. Helen says you have to trust the people on your team. They need to know when they need to come to you for decisions, but they also need to feel empowered to make decisions for themselves as well, so getting that balance right can also be a challenge.
Another challenge is making the culture shift from managing people by their presence in the office to managing their output and objective.
When I asked Helen how she achieved and maintains a management position on a flexible schedule, she replied that it is about leading by example. Everyone on her team knows they have the option to work on a flexible schedule as long as they manage their own workload and deliverables. It falls on her to trust them and empower them to do that. She catches up with her team once every 2 weeks and also uses Zoom to video conference with her team members throughout the UK.
Tools Helen recommends
OneNote is her notetaking app of choice while she’s on conference calls.
For her Monday night planning sessions, she relies on her Ink and Volt planner, which has sections for yearly, monthly, and weekly goals, and a daily to-do list. The planner goes everywhere she does.
Helen uses an app called Hours Tracker on her phone to log her work hours. This way, she can ensure she’s not working too many hours and is making adequate time for her family.
Also, online grocery shopping is the best thing she’s done and the one tool that she can’t live without.
What advice would you give to other women trying to achieve work-life balance?
Cut yourself some slack. You can’t do everything, and you will never be perfect at everything. Stop worrying, and be there for your kids and team.
Find a support network. Join employee networks at work if they are available. Join chat forums and mom groups where you can share ideas,
Don’t overcompensate. If you’re trying to work flexibly or balance work and life, define boundaries. Figure out what works for you and don’t apologize for that.
What happens on a day when everything gets away from you?
On days like this, Helen has what she calls a “coffee shop day”: she leaves her laptop and phone behind and only takes her notebook, colored pens, and headphone to a coffee shop or library or somewhere that is not her office or home. She scribbles down a mindmap of things on her mind. At the end of her coffee shop day, she has a plan that is less reactive to everyone else’s emails, and more proactive based on her own agenda.
One thing Helen has started recently is taking “well-being days.” This started when she was feeling really run-down one day after not having taken a vacation for a while. She took a day off, sat in a cafe and read a book, got a pedicure, and went shopping. Basically, she did things she used to do before having kids and had some “me time” to re-charge her batteries.
What’s on the horizon for Helen?
Helen is excited about Christmas. It’s the first Christmas that her toddlers have an understanding of what’s going on.
She’s also excited to develop the team she has, to empower them further, and to really change the culture towards a flexible work arrangement for everyone.
Last thoughts on making a life that matters
“Cut yourself some slack. Don’t worry that you’re not perfect. Don’t worry that the system you have is not perfect. Don’t worry that you’re not getting everything done. Worry in itself is a blocker. Spend some time on you. Have a ‘well-being day’ or ‘coffee shop day’ and you’ll find that you’re more productive than you think you are.
What do you think?
Connect with Helen
More about Helen
Helen is a Risk and Assurance manager for a large European bank in London and manages a team of 7, all based across the UK. She is a mum of 2-year-old twin boys and works as flexibly as possible to maintain as much of a happy work-life balance as can be achieved with toddlers! She’s a productivity sponge and is always looking for the next best system or tip to help make her more effective. She lives in North London with her husband and boys, and enjoyed scuba diving and snowboarding before kids and hopes to eventually instill that love of travel and adventure to her family as they grow up.
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