Balance or blend?

Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?

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The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In our Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.

However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.

The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!).

I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.

However, I might be changing my mind. Last night was our Edith Morley lecture given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of media.com. She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.

And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend”  – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words…  my favorite English Breakfast tea!

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Working year: 2015

2015 was a year of big change for me. I stepped down as Head of Department of Meteorology, and took on the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion (role shared with my former Head of School, Prof. Simon Chandler-Wilde), thereby moving away a little from atmospheric research and more towards University leadership. Perhaps appropriately therefore, my year of work has been in itself diverse. Here are some images that capture the general idea.

  1. My changing career

2. Life on campus as a Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

3. And life off campus getting out and about….

4. Some light reading…

5. Teaching my favorite module – Arran field course

6. Research trip to China – first visit there, and first long haul travelling in 9 years!

7. Traditional end of year Christmas Carols in Meteorology

2015-12-11 13.05.40

I wonder what 2016 will look like?

“Fika time” – taking a break

There is one thing that never fails to raise my work mood – taking a coffee or lunch break with my colleagues. Sometimes the talk is about work, and sometimes not. It usually involves laughter – which is of course a powerful mood elevator. Occasionally there is a mutual rant about something which is cathartic. After  these breaks I am often overwhelmed with gratitude for the presence of my colleagues – it’s one reason why I could never work totally from home. However, I don’t take these breaks as often as I should and whilst digging around in the files on my laptop I found something I wrote along similar lines following a work visit to Stockholm in September, but never got around to posting. Having just had a mood-enhancing coffee break, now seems like a good time.

“Fika” is a very important event in the Swedish day, and means “to take a coffee break, usually with something sweet like a cinnamon bun, with your colleagues, friends, family or date”. At my research panel meetings in Stockholm this week, we have had fika at 10am and 3 pm. My Swedish colleagues started getting twitchy around 9.45 and were noticeably watching the clock obsessively to see where to stop the discussion in order to have fika – there was no question of missing it! Our fika had small bread rolls with cheese or turkey and salad in them alongside the strong coffee. I have absolutely no idea how most of the Swedes I have met seem to be so slim and healthy looking given this fika habit, but I suspect the nature of the food has something to do with it.  The combination of protein and carbohydrate in the morning meant that I didn’t get the usual sugar rollercoaster from having sweet biscuits. Although cake was available at the afternoon “fika”, this was alongside little pots of fresh fruit salad, which were really refreshing. It was also noticeable that largely the conversations had during fika were little to do with our meeting. It seems that fika is truly a coffee “break”. I think we returned to work 15 minutes later, benefiting from having had a break from the business at hand. Swedish colleagues described it as crucial for building and maintaining relationships with their teams at work by having a short but regular opportunity to get to know what else is going on in people’s lives.

Back in the UK, our coffee area is in an open plan area next to the desks of our PhD students. When we moved over here 2 years ago (good grief), we discussed how to manage this and effectively designated “fika” times when it was acceptable to have some chat over coffee or food, giving the PhD students the freedom to object to noise outside those times. So in theory we have the opportunity to do “fika” in the same way. However, only a few people are there every day and if I’m honest I rarely make it. Perhaps this is because our time is 11am and I am usually hungry and desperate for caffeine by 10 so I have mine at my desk early and then don’t feel like stopping again until lunch time. But, after this week I am more convinced of the wider benefit of a shared and regular “fika” so I think I will try to encourage it and attend it more. Especially as we have new folks on the upper floor of our building and it would be good to get together often. Now, who can I persuade to make some tasty treats?

Clearly I haven’t yet managed to achieve a regular “fika” here, but perhaps it’s time to try again.

Arran 2013 Part 1: Why I like teaching on fieldcourses

This week I have left the family and the office behind to teach on the joint Leeds and Reading Atmospheric Science field-course on the Isle of Arran. This course has been developed jointly over the past few years and has come to be one of the highlights of their degree for many of our students. This is my 5th year as a module co-convenor, and despite the organisational and logistical stress, and being away from my family, it is one of my favourite teaching activities. Here are the reasons why:

Total Weather Immersion: These days, I get all too little time to really get “into” the weather during office hours. On Arran, we are governed to a large extent the evolving weather situation. The main issue is scheduling the walk up the 875m high Goat Fell. Whilst we don’t wait for blue skies and sunshine, it would not be sensible to go up on days with high wind and torrential rain, so for the first few days we have to keep a very close eye on the forecast.  In 2011 we just about made it up there before we were all confined to the classroom during the passage of Hurricane Katia. The students take a range of measurements on the walk and at the field-centre, probing the local boundary layer and linking local observations to forecasts and balloon launches. A key educational benefit of this course is the opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills from the previous 2 years of work. Although I have email access and will clear the inbox daily, there is little time, energy or inclination to do anything else resulting from my role as Head of Department .

Prolonged contact with students: We take a maximum  of about 30 students drawn from the final year  of BSc and MMet Meteorology degrees at Reading, and the final year of BSC Meteorology, BSc Environmental Science and BSc Climate and Atmospheric Science from Leeds. These are split into small groups of 4 or 5. This year we have 5 teaching staff as well as 2 technical staff, so there’s a really good staff:student ratio. We (and the students) work 7.30am to 9.30pm for 6 days solid, and it is fascinating to watch how the groups and individuals develop over that time. To have the time to sit down and really explain a bit of theory, get the students to draw out the key results and see them have a “discovery” or “realisation” moment is a rare treat in our (and their) busy learning journeys. I *think* the students appreciate this too.

Teaching collaboration: My involvement with this course, came about largely because the current Leeds convenor @JimMcQuaid and I were on a research detachment with the FAAM aircraft in Treviso in August 2004. I routinely collaborate with colleagues at many institutions on research projects, but collaborations in teaching activities, particularly those that contribute assessment towards undergraduate degree courses are much rarer. There is much we learn from each other, not just concerning our subject, but also teaching and communication skills, assessment ideas and feedback methods. I really value this time to reconnect with my teaching skills.

Simplified work-life integration: As well as the total immersion in the weather compared to other “work activities”, Arran is undoubtedly a chance to immerse myself in work compared to the rest of my life. I cannot deny that this is in part at least pleasurable. I feel very guilty leaving my young family for an extended period of time, and my 3 year old at least will take a while to forgive me, but it is a pleasant break from the constant plate spinning and transitioning. Any down time can be spent writing proposals or blogs or reading papers and manuscripts without feeling guilty that I’m not doing “domestic management” tasks. I am fortunate indeed that my support network at home accepts and understands this part of my job.

Expect some more field course related blogs in the next few days…