Does being happier count?

Photo by Garrett Heath | Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence 2.0
Photo by Garrett Heath |
Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

I attended a work/life balance forum the other day.

It was an event that was a first step – I hope – in addressing the relentless anxieties around the gendered juggling of work, caring for others, and quality of life.

These are endemic struggles in contemporary work life and appear in sharp relief in academia. There’s an expectation that universities should be better at this kind of stuff, that they’d be more aware, and willing to implement changes or embed structures that bring about change. It’s a fair expectation.

Much of the discussion at the forum centred on efficient work practices, and setting boundaries for ourselves and others around our work. For example, until someone on the panel told us, I had no idea our university had guidelines for recommended meeting times: between 9:30am and 3pm. It makes good sense, and is a very simple way to make the workplace more inclusive.

One of the forum’s panel members is at a senior executive level and passionate about the possibilities of working out a balance between home life and workload commitments through the flexible work options offered by universities. He encouraged staff to speak with their managers about creating better working lives by considering these options.

I was heartened to hear this. Universities, and many other organisations, talk big about being ‘family friendly’ workplaces dedicated to offering flexible working options, but these options are rarely well exposed and taken for a turn around the academic block. It’s like having parents’ feeding or mother’s expressing rooms on campus at universities – given much lip-service and expected to be there but rarely as convenient as might be necessary (see my relatively considered rant about this issue in my personal blog, A Simple Story).

I’m all for Team Flexibility. It’s a huge reason why I returned to the academic side of the university. As a professional staff member for over three years, I had a great amount of autonomy and an excellent working relationship with my line manager…and I still couldn’t swing a regular work-from-home day. It was not the done thing. I could work away from my desk all day but I could not work from home. It’s a puzzle to me to this day.

As an academic, I have a set work-from-home day each week, and other times by negotiation. I’m often giving workshops, or working outside the cafe strip or in the library on campus. If I’m in the city for something, I’ll often just work the remainder of the day from home because trekking out to my campus just to be seen to sit at a particular desk is ludicrous. I’m lucky to have a manager who understands that. Many don’t.

Basically, unless I have to front an actual roomful of researchers or attend an old-school meeting (face-to-face in material space), my work can be done anywhere that has the tech to support me. We’re talking access to wi-fi and my laptop or a desk-top set-up somewhere. That’s it.

Many of my academic peers are in this situation, barring those who may need to spend time in labs, clinics, or hospitals. And, even then, much of their work can be located flexibly otherwise.

In my rainbow unicorn world, all university workers who can and want to work from other sites or at different hours, should be able to as long as it still allows them to do the work they need to. Many, many people within universities do not understand or appreciate the opportunities that desired flexible work offers. It shouldn’t detract from productivity and, in fact, it can really add to it.

There’s a lot of cultural change that needs to take place to overcome the hard-wired panopticon model of understanding our workplaces and colleagues. There is a small-minded adherence to the belief that you must witness a person doing their work for them to be doing their work. I conflated these issues in my rant against open-plan offices, mostly because the new corporatised workplaces of our universities meant fishbowl offices and those awfully synergistic open-plan spaces that strove to enhance collaboration and affirm team identities… yet they only seem share colds and lurgies, increase levels of stress and distraction, and offer no appreciable up-lift in productivity. (Yes, I still hate open plan.)

Even if staff are delivering on all their commitments and performing perfectly in every way, not being in the office or around the corridors is read as ‘not-working’ or being a less invested (and capable?) colleague. This can lead to negative effects on careers as a whole, especially for women, who are more likely to be working flexibly.

At most universities in Australia, if you want to make a consistent change to standard work presence or times (e.g. 48/52 model, change your work fraction, change your working times), you have to make a business case for it and present it to your manager, who may or may not accept that case. If they don’t accept it, they usually need to present you with their reasons for not doing so. You have a legal right to request flexibility, and they have the right to refuse.

The reasons for a business case you might make, however, can be telling and demonstrate the limited ways universities want to extend flexible work options. They are very dependent on provable instances of why you might want to change status quo work arrangements. For example, taking into consideration caring responsibilities and being sensitive to school day timetables, or a chronic illness and what that might mean for a staff member’s working hours. These are all important and hard-fought gains, and need to be embedded deeper within academic cultures. You should be able to ask for and receive permission in these situations without penalty.

One key reason that seems to get overlooked in the ‘business case’ model is that working flexibly might make a staff member happier.

If that staff member is asking for changed working location or timing of their working hours, and they will still be doing what their role requires, what is the problem? You would have no change in what work someone is doing, plus they’d be happier about their work life.

Is that not ‘win win’?


  1. Loved this Tseen – so, so, so TRUE! I find its important, on the on-campus days, to be visible… and also that I might not even get to my office!


    • Having to be seen to be present is so archaic! There are many ways staff can be ‘present’ in a work day, or for their team, that does not mean being physically in front of certain eyes. It’s like all the tech advances we’ve had in the past 30 yrs or so don’t matter – so many managers (and colleagues) still need ‘proof of work’ performance within the four walls of the office.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yup – the ridiculousness of it at our University is highlighted by a friend of mine. She lives a fair commute away, and wanted to work from home 2 days a week. Her request had to go to the VICE CHANCELLOR for approval!!! I would love time at home to work on stuff, potter, work on more stuff etc. I work best at ridiculous hours of the night, and find I struggle during the day. Yet I am supposed to be on campus between 8:30 and 5.


    • See, that’s the thing I really don’t understand – if your work is fine to be done at ridiculous hours (e.g. you’re not 9-5 counter staff), then does it matter if you’re choosing to do it at other ‘non-standard’ times? The issue is, of course, that being part of a workplace involves more than just the tasks that get done by your role – but it’s a big chunk of implicit expected behaviour that needs clarifying now that tech enables us to work differently. You can still have team/unit dynamics that are fabulous and that require little face-to-face time.

      That requiring VC’s approval story is amazing and ridiculous. Imagine the level of unimaginability working 2 days a week from home would need to elicit for that to happen!


      • Dear Lord I am SO NOT 9-5 counter staff. Add to the fact my boss works on a different campus ANYWAY, and I am the ONLY research person HERE, you can really really see how silly it it. Add to this my boss is paranoid (he has rung OTHER PEOPLE to find out WHY I am not answering my phone), and my house seems like a sanctuary. Sure some stuff needs to be done 9-5 (medical records searching, phone ethics committees, teleconferences, stats programming), but most of it is literature searches, and writing.
        The VC thing boggled ALL of us. Apparently it was something to do with the fact she needed to remote access into the servers or something, but still. Part of me really wants to find another job, but most of me LOVES this one. (Also, really bummed I did not make it to shut up and write last week when I was in Melbourne)


  3. So true and I love the recommended meeting hours. I miss so many seminars because they are after 3pm and I have school aged children.
    I think there are also unsaid expectations that if one is not working 24/7 they are not dedicated enough to be an academic. Maybe there should be guidelines about senior academics not sending out work emails from 7pm to 7am as this sends a message that one should be visible at uni in the day and also actively working at home.


    • Yes, very much so on that point about feeling like you much always be overworking to prove that you’re dedicated to your career. It’s a toxic cycle.

      And senior academics setting good work boundaries would send more sustainable signals to their colleagues but, that said, the change for rethinking how academic work takes place will likely not happen at the upper echelons. Current generations of scholars, and especially emerging scholars, fighting to set reasonable work boundaries is a long-term movement that is gaining profile and momentum. I think it’s up to all of us to advocate for good balance, and push back so that the sector recognises the need to consider quality of our working lives.


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