Busting the Myth of Work-Life Balance: Sheilesha Willis
Meet Dr. Sheilesha Willis.
She has a Ph.D. in Psychology, is a homeowner, and makes a mean sweet potato and black bean taco. She also is the funniest person I know, and always gets my random pop culture references (Jeallouuussss??).
Is it weird to say that I look up to my younger sister? Because I do. She is intelligent and driven, and an amazing mother to my two-year-old niece Mikaela.
After giving birth to Mikaela in 2016, she decided to make a big shift in her work schedule and work from home a few days a week so she could be with her daughter. You may have your preconceived notions about working from home, but trust me when I tell you that Sheilesha is not lounging around the house in her jammies taking naps in between conference calls while Mikaela is snacking on crackers and watching tv. Sheilesha is an integral part of a HUGE company and has a ton of responsibilities to tackle every single day.
Believe me, it is hard!
But she has excelled at it. And I’ve always wondered… how Sway?? So I asked her.
First off, share a little about your job
I work in HR in a multinational organization called AECOM. I support about 80,000 employees across the globe in 150 countries. I’m the Director of International Benefits and my main role is managing our global benefit programs, global well-being strategy, benefits analytics and I have oversight over our Canadian and Latin American health and retirement plans. I’ve been working with AECOM over 4 years and joined in the midst of a large acquisition that doubled the number of active employees globally at the company.
How did you make your decision to work from home? How did your employer react to your request?
There were a few factors that led to my decision to work from home a couple days per week. The first is I had a child and wanted to be able to continue to perform at a high-level at work while not sacrificing valuable time with my daughter. It's a challenge because the U.S. is one of the few countries and really the only Western country that doesn't provide statutory paid leave for mothers. It was really difficult to think I'd have to go back to work 3 months after giving birth and put in the same amount of hours I'd put in before I gave birth. Working from home allowed me to maintain better work-life balance as a working professional with a young child.
I'm grateful that I work for a manager and an organization that enables this flexible work arrangement. In addition to this, we moved to an open space office arrangement that eliminated private offices and made it easier for people to be mobile between the office, client sites and home. It was the perfect storm of events.
Describe a typical work from home day for you.
Every day looks a little different because no one day is the same at work for me and if you have a small child, you know no one day is the same for them either :). I usually wake up, hoping not to wake my daughter so I can start my day productively. I check my email. She usually wakes up not too long after I do so we're usually starting our day together. Before my calls begin, I try to make her breakfast but more often than not, I'm on a call while cooking her breakfast so I'm multitasking. From there, I'm usually on email and calls, while she is playing and watching cartoons.
Sometimes she decides to be really independent and play on her own. Other times, she decides she needs more cuddles and wants to play in my lap. Regardless of her mood, I'm intent on being productive and performing at the same or a higher level than I did before I was a mother. I guess I'm hyper aware of the statistics on the mobility of working mothers and the perception that mothers can't perform at the same level as those who don't have primary care responsibilities. I hope that my work ethic makes people think a little differently about working mothers and in turn, organizations continue to put programs and policies in place to support them and enable their success.
Between my calls, emails and work assignments, I make her meals and make sure her needs are met. At the end of the day, I power down and try to spend some uninterrupted time with her. Then it's time for dinner and to get her ready for bed.
What advice would you give other parents who are hoping to work from home with their little one(s)?
Know that it's not easy and you have to be really organized to make it work. At times, balancing the two can be more stressful than having a clear delineation between work and home. I make it work because it's important to me that I spend as much time with my daughter as possible during her developmental years and that she understands that nothing takes precedence over her.
However, my career is very important to me as well. I have always been a high performer and I refuse to let anything change that. I don't really have work-life balance. I have work-life integration. I have learned to be flexible in the way I spend time working and parenting. Some times one flows into the other and I have had to learn the right balance between the two. There are times when I leave the office, come home and am asked to complete an assignment. I happily do so because there may be times when I need flexibility to fulfill my parental responsibilities.
You have to find the balance that works right for you and your family. And don't feel guilty if you aren't able to make working from home work for you. It's not for everyone!
What's your overall philosophy for maintaining a work/life balance?
As noted above, work life balance is really a personal matter. What I do and how I integrate the two may not work for the next person. You have to find the right job, manager and organization that will support your work-life endeavors. As a parent who is a little more advanced in her career, working from home a few days a week works well for me. I don't think this would have worked well early in my career. And I couldn't imagine working from home full-time and not having contact with my team members right now. I think there is something really special and important about the face to face interaction and the innovation that comes from sitting in a room and ideating with team members. Working from home 100% of the time might work well for others. It's also important to note that the line between home and work gets blurred when you work from home so it's important to have boundaries. I am not great about taking care of myself and so I would urge anyone who decides to work from home to also find some time to focus on their own well-being. Work and home life can be demanding. Don't forget to take care of yourself!