Engineering the Work/ Life Balance

June 24, 2013

Engineering isn’t easy. Often, our careers demand long hours and intense concentration, leaving little time or energy for life outside the current project. How can we reign in the pressures of home and career, in order to achieve a healthy balance?

We spoke with four professionals whose efforts paid real dividends, keeping them happy at home and successful in the workplace. Maintaining a balance between life and work not only made them happier people but better engineers as well.

Why Balance is a Priority

Many come to see work and family as oppositional priorities. It’s true that the scope of one’s responsibilities in each sphere can creep, to the detriment of other commitments. When in balance, however, your home life and career support each other, leaving you a better engineer and a healthier person.

“As an engineer,” says Travis Pearl, CTO of MeritShare, “it’s easy to become consumed in code and solving near-term challenges.” MeritShare, which develops employee recognition software for small- to medium-sized businesses, is in the startup phase, necessitating long nights and shifting workloads. “Unfortunately, the myopic focus of pulling an all-nighter can lead to missing the simple solution, and more importantly, potentially over-engineering something leading to more complexity than necessary.”

From one perspective, then, allowing your work to consume too much focus is akin to never taking a break… ever. Your ability to think, evaluate problems, and engineer novel solutions is compromised, degrading performance and leading inevitably to burnout.

“It’s essential to being a healthy person to have some balance between your professional work and your personal life,” says Oko Buckle, the Southeast Regional Manager for Transmission and Distribution Services and Burns & McDonnell (jobs). “I enjoy what I do at work on a daily basis, but I love my family very dearly. It is, therefore, very important that I do not focus on one to the detriment of the other.”

“The company is always willing to take more from you and so is your family,” adds Kathy Haselmaier, who balances a nuclear family with a career at a Fortune 10 company. “You have to define the right balance for you, then do your best to achieve it.”

It’s easy to see how losing our balance can make us miserable people and less effective engineers. But what, exactly, does it mean to maintain a balance between life and work? Is “balance” a state to be achieved, an attitude, or a system of priorities?

Balance is a Verb

In the West, we’re accustomed to thinking of life in terms of milestones. Once we’ve taken our first steps, tested for a driver’s license, or earned our first degree, those goals are achieved, and we move on. Balancing work and life isn’t as much a goal, or a discrete milestone, as it is an ongoing exercise in process engineering. “I don’t know anyone who has one day just decided that they have work-life balance,” Buckle says. “Most of us are learning how to balance it every single day.”

Pearl concurs. “Finding a work-life balance is a moving target for me. There will be times where your work life requires many extra hours and times when your family or personal obligations will require you to take extra time away from work.” The demands of establishing a startup can be onerous, as many of us are all too aware, and they can shift rapidly with circumstance. “Balance is something that fluctuates from week to week,” he says, “but it’s important to reflect back often and make sure you haven’t swung too far into either work or play mode. Course correct if need be.”

“Every day, every week is an intentional look at my calendar,” Buckle adds, “and a plan to stay focused on what matters at work and what matters at home.”

It’s much easier to stay on track if you understand that balance, in this context, isn’t a fixed state.  Children get sick and specifications undergo surprise revision; these are facts of life. As their demands on time and attention are dynamic, we can’t expect work and life to remain neatly compartmentalized.

You Can’t Do It Alone

Communication and mutual support are required to maintain this flexibility. When circumstances change, you have to communicate your priorities honestly – and find help when needed – to avoid losing your balance.

For Haselmaier, mutual support is a considerable factor in her success. “My husband has been my strongest supporter from the beginning,” she says. The two share responsibility for supporting and raising their children, each providing back-up for the other. “Knowing that each of us has a back-up in both roles,” she says, “enables us to take risks at work we might not have otherwise.”

Often, the engineers who balance work and life most successfully are those who gather support from both aspects of their lives, rather than viewing the two as inherently in opposition. “When things get out of control, talk to your partner,”  Haselmaier says. “A good partner will want to help you. When you know work will be intense for awhile, tell your kids and your friends. It will help them understand your behavior, provide context for it, and help them learn how to handle their own, similar situations in the future.”

Similarly, cultivating honest relationships with your managers and colleagues helps you through when the pendulum swings the other way. “If you start to feel out of control,”  Haselmaier adds, “admit it and ask for help. When I feel like work becomes overwhelming, I talk with my manager and work out a plan to focus on the highest priorities or find help. Your manager is usually your ally.”

Set Realistic Goals

“The fact is, certain careers are not reconcilable with certain lifestyles,” says Joseph Santana. In a previous career, he headed a company of 300 IT engineers. Now, he operates a global consulting company specializing in diversity and inclusion assessments, diagnostics, and solutions. In both pursuits, he often consulted on issues relating to designing and maintaining a healthy balance between work and life.

“If you are starting a career, begin by making life decisions first, then determining the right engineering career trajectory,” he says. “If I want to be a man fully involved in my son’s and daughter’s day-to-day development, while being a globe-trotting engineer who calls an airport his second home, it will not work.”

Haselmaier agrees. “No one can do everything, so focus. Decide what is most important to you and make a realistic, yet flexible, plan to try to achieve those things.

Working Towards Balance

Pearl approaches the problem of engineering flexibility into his workflow by dividing his tasks into smaller units. “Break your work down into small chunks, preferably a few hours each if possible,” he says. “Then, prioritize your workload to create a stack-ranked list with high priority items on top and lower priority items on the bottom. If you can breakdown, then prioritize your work, it’s easier to visualize your progress and see what needs to be done by the end of the day vs. the end of the week vs. the end of the month.”

This tactic is more than an organizational technique; by ordering and prioritizing tasks of a few hours each, it’s easier to shift them around as your circumstances change. Should your home life require more time and attention in a given week, you’ll know at a glance what can be pushed aside to accommodate the change and what tasks must be completed to earn the required flexibility.

“This has been key: setting priorities and honoring them,” Haselmaier says. “Interestingly, I think this clarity can make one a better employee because you have to work efficiently, focus on the most important things and use good judgment.”

“Life is always about choices,” Buckle says. “One thing I learned recently is to set aside a day in the week when you can have dinner as a family. Do all you can to make it home for dinner on those days – no excuses! If your family is as important as work (or more so) than you have to live that truth and not just say it – being home for dinner is a good start.”

It’s never clear, from week to week, which will require more focus and attention, so the most robust solutions support flexibility and responsiveness to evolving conditions.


How Do You Achieve Balance?

How are you able to strike a balance between your engineering career (or studies) and life? If you have tips or experience you’d like to share, we would love to hear it – please drop a comment below or tweet us @EngineerJobs.