Life & Culture

‘Nobody wants to be an octopus woman’

How do we cope with multi-tasking under lockdown? Claire Cantor asked expert Annie Auerbach for advice


Our dusty home office is getting a lot of use these days. My husband, who only agreed to move to our house 16 years ago if he could have his own office, painted in the colour of his choosing (royal blue!), is there for 10 hours a day since lockdown was imposed. He has discovered that he can successfully complete a full working day from the comfort of his own home, including conference calls for 100 people, and run efficient working meetings with his teams. He even gets to go for a walk at the end of the day (commute now obsolete) and have lunch brought up to his desk by his kids.

The coronavirus crisis has changed our lives, albeit temporarily, in so many ways. But the way we work may have been fundamentally changed forever.

Annie Auberbach advocates for this change in her new book, Flex: The Modern Woman’s Handbook — which promises to “re-invent the rules for a smarter, happier future.”

Fed up with the myth sold to women that they can “have it all” — the dream job, the family, the ‘me time’, the social life and still remain healthy, happy and sane, she challenges the norms and routines of home and working life. Her book suggests that a more flexible approach would be beneficial to all — employees, employers, parents and families as well as the economy.

Auberbach, 42, understands the stress of juggling domestic and family responsibilities with a full-on professional life. Living in Queens Park with her husband, author Ben Lyttleton, and their daughters aged 11 and 8, Auerbach is joint director of Starling Strategy, a consultancy specialising in understanding socio-cultural change. Her client list includes brands such as Nike, Pepsico, Google and Unilever.

Back in 2012, when her daughter was a toddler, Auerbach was working three days a week as director at a global research agency. She thought she had achieved the holy grail: flexibility and balance between work and home life. She soon realised it was a disaster and felt she was failing on every front.

“Spend some time searching online for pictures of working women and you’ll see cartoons of women with eight octopus arms juggling food, lipstick, laptop and wine,” says Auerbach. “Or business women on conference calls clutching bewildered-looking babies. But who actually wants to live their lives like this? I wrote this book because I think this image of the stressed, juggling woman is past its sell-by date. I don’t want to join the army of knackered, octopus women and I don’t want my daughters to be part of it either. It’s not fun, it’s not cool and we need a new model.”

Auerbach has been working flexibly in one way or another for 20 years and her book aims to support women who are trying to find that elusive work/life balance. It’s filled with inspirational tips from “flex pioneers” and practical tips on how to live and work on your own terms. Auerbach’s Flex is not just for frazzled parents of young kids, but anyone who is stretched and pulled in all directions. She talks to people who want to change direction and use their skills, and the younger generation coming into the workforce who are seeking strategies to avoid burn out.

Covid-19 has indirectly created a more flexible way of working. These days people are skyping in their pyjamas, making calls from the treadmill and showering at midday after their permitted hour of exercise.

“We’ve suddenly gone from presenteeism to enforced ‘work from home’ and in very exceptional circumstances,” says Auerbach. “The temptation is to swap the 9 to 5 for the 24/7, to have no boundaries and to be digitally tethered, either to our colleagues or to the news. We’re all finding our way. On the positive side, there’s a great deal of humanity in the way we are interacting; we are seeing kids, cats, partners and the odd tortoise wandering into frame in video conference calls. We are checking up on each other. We’re seeing the messy complex reality of all our lives —in my opinion, all of this is a step forward. We’re always told to ‘bring our full selves to work’ and now we can’t help but do so.”

Can we hope that Covid-19 has changed our office-based culture? Will people now feel more relaxed about getting home for bath time or dinner with their partner?

“Presenteeism is an outmoded macho concept which causes burnout,” says Auerbach. “It is a hangover from an industrial economy which relied on everyone being in the same place at the same time. Tech means that’s no longer necessary in many industries but working cultures hadn’t caught up. Long hours and the expectation of bums-on-seats are emblematic of a working culture that was built for and by men and relies on the assumption that you have a wife at home who manages the emotional load and keeps the home and family running.

“It is also counter-productive: people have higher productivity, engagement and increased retention rates when they work flexibly. The whole thing needs to be reinvented which is happening right now under our noses in the greatest flex experiment we’ve ever seen.”

Auerbach is particular interested in women’s natural cycles and their impact on working life. She feels lockdown has given us the opportunity for us to choose our own working rhythm, and that our raised level of attention to personal health is a chance to reframe the working day to our own preferences. She suggests that we should tune into our circadian rhythms — if you’re a morning lark get your creative mind-expanding work done early when you are most alert, deal with routine stuff later.

Embracing ‘cycle-syncing’ and understanding your menstrual rhythms can help you work out when to do different tasks – taking into account mood, energy and any pain.

While some of us may be bored and fed up after several weeks at home, tired of endless cleaning and cooking, I am wondering how we can let our minds wander when our feet cannot. Auerbach thinks we can use this lockdown period to “break out of our echo chambers, broaden our horizons, and open our hearts to new things”.

She urges us to delve into new activities: books waiting to be read, documentaries to watch, even broaching new topics of conversation at home. Auerbach herself is an ideas machine. Her job requires free thinking and to shake up norms. She is a fan of the walking meeting to stimulate creativity and believes that the best ideas come from “smashing together two existing ideas which have never been connected.”

“In Flex I write about T-shapedness,” explains Auerbach, “where creativity comes from making connections from previously unconnected concepts. Our housebound existences are perfect breeding-ground for T-shapedness — see what connections your brain makes.”

Coronavirus has upended many people’s working lives, and even the best laid professional plans are now in the metaphorical trash bin.

Flex encourages “future proofing” your career by being able to re-invent, reskill and pivot to new jobs. But is this viable in the current unstable economic climate?

“It’s true that we can’t apply old models and measurements to new and changing times,” says Auerbach.

“We just don’t know how this will play out; we can’t make rigid two-year plans. It is a time of national turmoil and deep collective stress — rather than trying to plan our way out of this, we can be deeply empathetic.

“Clap for the NHS, look out for our elderly neighbours, help our communities, and listen to our loved ones.”


‘Flex- The Modern Woman’s Handbook; Re-inventing the rules for a smarter, happier life’ is published by Harper Collins.


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