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Work and Home: The Balancing Act

Yours truly has been writing articles for AWCI’s Construction Dimensions for a few years now, and I’ve asked our contractors literally hundreds of questions on many topics. Still, according to many, this was the toughest question I have ever asked.

How, I wanted to know, do you best balance work and home?

These are their answers.

On hearing the questions, Jerry Maxcy, vice president of Jesco Inc, a Mississippi general contractor quipped, “I always like to defer to Jimmy Buffet on matters such as when work gets in the way of other things; remember the song lyrics that say ‘Some people claim there’s a woman to blame, but I know: It’s my own damn fault!’

“It’s a real hard balancing act, this work verus home thing.”

Bill Thumm, project executive at Maryland general contracting company Hensel Phelps Construction, reflected, “Life balance within any industry revolves around how much you like your job. If you are ‘80 percent Like’ and ‘20 percent Dislike,’ then you have a good chance of surviving. If the ratio is flipped, then you should consider a less taxing career than the one you’re in.

“I don’t know anyone who takes his or her job seriously who doesn’t struggle with the life/work balance. From my experience, it’s an ebb and flow. When you’re younger, you are idealistic and believe there should be a break from work to have a life, and that this break should be a hard and well-defined line. As you grow and mature you realize that lines blur and you get comfortable with that as you realize you can’t have one without another.

“A good company will respect your time as much as you respect their need for you to perform. The idea that you can work eight hours in a day and go home doesn’t really exist anymore, especially with the technology now available to us.

“Some look at this as being an issue, but I look at it as being a blessing. I can work from almost anywhere. This has certainly built some flexibility into our lives, but it does require discipline. You need to learn to put the laptop or iPhone down when needed, and you need to communicate to your employer what your expectations are.

“As for me, my life is a blend of work and home almost 24/7. I answer emails, take calls, correspond with employees via text every day and at all hours. I find empty time in my day, and I fill it with productive components.

“I have learned to pick off easy emails during a game halftime or when I’m traveling and sitting in a hotel room at night. The more serious issues, those that require concentration, I save for when I’m in the office or at the home desk early in the morning.

“This ability to flex my time around allows me to spend time at my kid’s activities or coaching volleyball. These days, I actually find I am more productive and happier and feel more in touch with my wife and kids since I can communicate better on both fronts.”

Listen to Your Heart

Fred Soward, president of Allstate Interiors, Inc. in New York, shared his personal tragedy and re-evaluation of the important things in life.

“One night a few years back, my wife woke me up and told me that she was dying, and would I take good care of the kids. Ten minutes later she died in my arms. She died from a broken heart syndrome, from the pressures caused by the downturn and by a union conflict we were involved with, by the loss of jobs and profits, by the hard times. At this point I realized that life is very short, and I re-evaluated what is really important, and how life and work had to have a better balance.

“I also began to listen to my heart, and what it said to do was to help others. Since then I’ve done several mission trips to Africa helping the really needy—those who’ve had a hand cut off or an eye burned out, those who have really suffered.

“And I’ve asked them, what makes them tick, why do they go on, what are they striving for? And I get answers like ‘I want to go back to school’ or ‘I just want to be free to live.’ They’re fighting for, and are giving their lives for what we take for granted here in the United States.

“Now I help others who really need help. You think you’ve had a bad day, and then you look back at what bad really means for those men and women and kids in Africa.

“Today, nothing is more important to me than a good life balance. You cannot drown in your work—life is just too short. If you drive yourself into the ground, you have no one else to blame but yourself.

“You balance your life by doing what you feel in your heart that you should do to help others.”

Saying “No”

Joseph Koenig, president of Trim-Tex Inc. in Illinois, is very passionate about his company. “We’re a small company in a fairly small community,” he says. “Once we set up business here, calls began arriving, from the mayor, etc., wanting me on this or that committee.

“I’ve always had the sense to tell them that I have three beautiful daughters at home, and I don’t want to take on more obligations.

“I have a few rules: One is that I’ll never skip breakfast, and I rarely miss dinner with my family. And that is what I told the mayor and the city council, that until I’m an empty nester, I’ll spend my spare time with my family. I said ‘no.’ I said ‘no’ a lot.

“Also, you have to hire good people, and you have to trust them and allow them to do their job, to allow you take your attention off work.”

Not Saying “No”

Howard Bernstein, president at Penn installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, arrived at a similar conclusion by a different route, “As I grew in this industry, I felt a little hollow with respect to ‘making a difference’ in my community, so I became more involved and the first board turned into a second and then a third.

“Many kind people commented on how impressed they were with my ability to be a good businessman, good father, good husband and good community citizen, and I always responded that as long as my home life was solid, the stresses of the professional life and community work were easy.

“Eventually, however, things at home grew strained and the weight of my many well-intentioned deeds made my knees buckle. Looking back I liken this to a frog put in a pot of water at room temperature and slowly being boiled to death: each degree seems manageable, as does the next. One day you wake up and you are boiling.

“Months if not years of this heat cannot be undone in days or weeks. I am blessed to have a partner who worked with me to find my way back and seek a better balance, despite her own full-time job and her own many commitments to family and community.

“This process was one of the hardest things I have been through and was a humbling reminder not to take the gifts we have for granted.

“Running a business and knowing when to ‘punch out’ is a hurdle that many of us face each day. Anyone running a business knows that you are never truly punched out, as professional worries often sneak into your mind even in your free time.

“Today, the biggest issue is forcing myself to leave the office at a reasonable time.”

Home Before Work

Chuck Taylor, business development manager at Englewood Construction, an Illinois general contractor, has grown wiser with age. “I have discovered you cannot be everything to everyone,” he says. “The spirit here at Englewood when an employee has to take off for a personal issue or reason has always been ‘If things are not right at home, then things will not be right at work.’

“Of course, this is easier said than done. With today’s technology, our clients expect instant response to their queries. ‘I just emailed you 30 seconds ago, why have you not responded yet?’

“While we do encourage our people to use their vacation and personal days, we ask that no one leave an auto reply on their email. We all have smartphones that receive email so it is not that difficult still to be in contact with our clients.

“That being said, one strategy I use with clients is to let them know ahead of time that I need to accomplish certain tasks for them by a certain date because I will be on vacation, also letting them know who can help them in an emergency.

“Good clients will respect this.”

Kids Come First

Stephen Baker, president of Baker Drywall, Ltd. in Texas admits, “Balancing work and home is incredibly hard but now, at 60, I look back and I think I did a fairly good job of it.

“I have always told our younger team members that family comes before work; don’t miss the game, school play or practice because of work. I always wanted to be the dad who coached our children when possible, and I didn’t ever miss a game, a performance or special event.

“Get your work done and go home or go to that special event. You will not look back at 70 and say ‘I wish I spent more time at the office.’ Rather, it’s ‘I should have spent more quality time with my family.’

“There were times that I would bring work home but I didn’t bring it out until homework had been done and the kids were asleep. If anyone suffered, it was my wife, from lack of attention and quality time. I am trying to make up for that now, pursuing her like I did when we were first dating (summer of 1970).

“I still come into the office on Saturdays; it seems to be the most productive four hours of the week.

“I know that success takes commitment but many who over-commit at work are unsuccessful at home. I don’t want my company to be the reason for a bad marriage or family life. Rather, we want ‘work’ to build the employee—spiritually, mentally and physically.

“A balanced employee is happier and more productive.”

Don’t Miss Dinner

Andre Grebenstein, project manager at The Martin Group LLC, a New Jersey general contractor, admits, “This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I have two younger kids (12 and 10), and making sure there is time for the family takes constant management. I use the following philosophies:

“Make it home for family dinners as much as humanly possible. Even if I have to leave work before I am comfortable with the amount of work completed, I will eat dinner, put the kids to bed, and then open up the laptop.

“If I am traveling, or have an event, and come home after everyone is in bed, I try to stay at home an extra hour in the morning and have breakfast with everyone.

“At least once each weekend, I try and take everyone out for a walk or for a hike. No cell phones, no iPods, no ear phones, etc.

“I strongly feel that creating an environment that facilitates the ‘casual’ conversations really allows me to stay connected with everyone. That usually happens at the dining room table or on the trails. You’d be surprised at some of the topics that come up on those walks.”

Hire Well

Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York speaks from experience, “Hire well and let them do what they are excellent at and love doing.

“Also, if you have the right team in place, there is no such thing as a drywall emergency that needs to disturb home life. Work smart and be present at work and at home.”

Family First

Joe Keipp, who owns River City Drywall & Painting, Inc. in Missouri, is a father of seven, “so balancing home life and work life is something I deal with on a daily basis. Sometimes it means having to be late for work or having to leave the office early because there’s a logistical conflict in bringing some of my kids to or from school, or I need to attend a school function in the middle of the day.

“However, throughout the years, I have had the same Friday morning routine: I take my younger kids to Panera Bread Company for breakfast before school. It’s a tradition we all enjoy and appreciate. To put time management of home life and work life in perspective, we must always remember that time is a gift from God that once lost can never be reclaimed.

“Believing that, I always put family first. Practically speaking, I leave the house at 5:30 in the morning and I’m always home by 5 p.m. I don’t work weekends, and I never take business calls while I’m with my family. Never.”

Under-Commit, Over-Deliver

Says Karrie Kratz, senior project manager at Gilbane Building Company, a Connecticut general contractor, “Ah, the ever-elusive work/life balance. While I would never put myself out as an expert in this field, here are my thoughts.

“When I succeed at this, it’s because I practice the same discipline at home as I do at work: accurate and honest forecasting of how long a task or an activity will take. I then under-commit and over-deliver.

“Also, always do what you say, and say what you do. Communication with your home team is just as important as communication with your work team, and miscommunication often leads to disappointment, like sending your five-year-old to school in pajamas when it’s not pajama day because you read that parent notice too fast, or not showing up to an important client meeting because you failed to communicate a schedule conflict. Such miscommunications result in a crying, disappointed child and an annoyed, disappointed client.

“Lastly, both at home and at work, if you come up short on quantity of time, you can make it up by quality time. It’s the quality that matters. If I spend all of my hours at work thinking about home or all of my hours at home thinking about work, the guilt of never really being in the right place creeps in. The answer is to be mindfully present at your current task.

“Now, if you ask my husband he will say I’m a workaholic but really I’m a ‘lifeaholic’ because I continuously attempt to cram 34 hours of life in a 24 hour day.”

Go Away

Says Richard Huntley, president of WeKanDo Construction, Inc. in Puerto Rico, “We have always made sure that we attend and celebrate family events, whether sports, educational or personal. I may not be able to attend my kids’ everyday practice, but I sure don’t miss the games!

“I also feel that for our family to stay sane, we have to spend quality time together. We make sure that we, at least monthly, ‘go away’ for the weekend. We also travel periodically, sometimes for business and sometimes for pleasure or vacations. This gives us a chance to bond.”

Separate Work and Family

According to Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, “You’ve hit a nerve for all construction contractors—especially now that the economy and construction are on the rise.

“There are various juggling acts we all must face—work versus family and home life, estimating versus project management. In my case, my wife and I are partners in the business—for the last 40 years—so we work together in the day and then go home to be family.

“In the last couple years—finally—we recognized that we have to separate the two. If we try to discuss work at the dinner table or at home, it oftentimes is testy, sometimes argumentative. So we’ve agreed not to discuss work outside of the office—less stress, better health and better relationship.

“We all know that our physical, mental and emotional health are paramount to longevity and success. If we ignore any of them, we pay a price. On the other hand, it is work that pays the bills and, if we’re fortunate, allows us a degree of success and recognition in life.

“The balance is different for each person and finding it is a challenge—if we seek it, which I think we must.”

Schedule Family Event and Reschedule Email

Suggests Bob Grimes, manager of business development at Turner Construction Company, a New York–based nationwide general contractor, “I think to figure this out for real, you have to figure out, for yourself, what balance means.

“I think the key is to recognize what in your personal life is truly important and organize your time to be there for this and be there with as few distractions as you can.

“Sometimes this means scheduling a lunch with your wife during the week to balance out the nights you come home late. Stopping in for lunch at school with your younger children, which I have done a few times on my way to the airport, will be remembered and appreciated, and matters to them.

“When the schedule for my kids’ school and extra-curricular activities and my wife’s softball games come out, I immediately put all of them into my calendar as appointment items, regardless of whether they happen in the day or evening. I include all the games, special programs and school breaks.

“This doesn’t mean I’ll make it to all of them, but I make more of them than I would have, had I not scheduled them.

“I am fortunate to work for a progressive company that supports the philosophy of work/life balance to the point that part of my evaluation as a leader includes how well I help my direct reports to find this balance.

“I would add that as leaders, we have a responsibility to set an example. In addition to talking actively about this with my team, I use technology to help me do this. I am an early riser, typically up around 5 a.m. even on the weekends. I use this quiet time before the rest of my family wakes up to do those less time-sensitive tasks I was unable to do during the week. This often involves cleaning up my email inbox and providing feedback and direction.

“In Microsoft Outlook there is a setting under options to delay delivery. I use this setting to have my weekend emails delivered at different times over the course of the coming Monday. This is because if you receive an email from your boss in the middle for the day on Saturday or at 5 o’clock on Sunday morning, you will feel responsible to do something about it; removing this burden is the right thing for a leader to do.”

Leave BS at the Office

Gerald Roach, owner of Forks Lath & Plaster, Inc. in North Dakota, takes this pragmatic stand: “I believe that if you are to build and run a successful business, home life comes second, for there is no way not to be thinking about work even on downtime.

“But with a good job comes a good home life. The longer you are in business, the easier it is to leave 80 percent of the BS at the office.

“Still, not long ago my wife and I were in Las Vegas. We were staying on the strip, a room high up in the hotel, and we had a view of a job across the street.

“The next morning, my wife awoke to find me drinking coffee and looking out of the window watching the EIFS crew work. The only problem was that I was all worked up: I wanted to go and fire those who were not working but just job cruising.”

Separate Work and Home

Says Greg Smith, vice president at Mowery-Thomason, Inc. in California, “I don’t mix work and home if I can help it. In fact, I use my drive home to decompress and rid myself of the day. Living in Los Angeles, the traffic here makes this possible. I rarely talk about my home life at work and rarely talk about work at home. Keeping the two separate is essential for me, though there are times when the two become blurred, like Christmas parties or industry-related functions where spouses are welcome.

“I try not to spend too much time at work. If I feel that I need to spend a few extra hours I will go in earlier rather than stay late. I don’t like to rob the time from my family. Coming in earlier also allows me to produce more, since the phones aren’t ringing yet.

“Coming in earlier, the home doesn’t suffer as they know that I almost always come home about the same time every day. I have worked a few late nights, and I didn’t care for that too much. I would arrive home after dinner and miss that valuable time. So, stealing the time away in the morning is far better for me and the home life.”

Thank Goodness for the Laptop

For Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, the laptop is a godsend. “Rather than be tied to the desk at work late into the evening hours, I’ve been able to keep up with work by having a laptop in my lap while catching glimpses of television.

“The trick is to try and look up from the laptop often enough to let the family know you’re actually in the room sharing in their entertainment.

“I’m often chastised for taking the laptop everywhere, even to vacation destinations, never letting go or being out of touch. To me, there is more stress in wondering what might be in that inbox that is holding up the train of our business. I find I can’t really relax until all the email and small laptop projects are out of the way for the day.”

No Cell Phones

Quips Michael Chambers, president of J&B Acoustical, Inc. in Ohio, “First have your kids take away your cell phone. In other words, turn off the phone when you walk in the door. In fact, at family meals, no one is allowed to have a phone, iPad or Game Boy on. The goal is to promote family conversation.

“Also, plan activities that involve every member of your family by alternating who picks the activity. Then attend as many sport events, dances and school activities as possible. Some of my best conversations were held one-on-one while taking one of our children to a practice.

“Lastly, don’t forget to schedule a date night with your significant other.”

No Work Talk

Says Joe Johnson, president of Prestige Drywall Inc. in Minnesota, “Balancing work life with home life is a constant battle especially in a family business like ours.

“I work with my mom, my dad, my wife, my brother and my brother-in-law. When people hear this they look at me like I’m nuts, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t trade it for the world because as tough as things can become and as much pressure as there can be at times, we’re always there for each other.

“We’re in control of our own destiny. The biggest thing with my wife and I is that we try to have ‘no work talk’ times every night where we just try to shut it off and enjoy our two young sons.”

Different Roles

John Hinson, division president at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc. in Dallas, offers the “very simple strategy of creating enough space and time between home and work. Enough to alter your role.

“I live an hour and a half away from my office, which gives me the time to change from ‘business/boss mindset’ to ‘partner/relationship mindset.’

“Those are two very different roles.”

Different Roles Indeed

No matter how blurred the lines might grow at times, work and home (even while clearly supporting one another—financially one way and mentally the other) are different.

Recognize your different roles and keep these two important areas of your life separate.

Lastly, always keep in mind what is truly valuable for you.

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.

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