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Time Is Money: Invisible Work, Resetting Boundaries and Delegation

Time Is Money: Invisible Work, Resetting Boundaries and Delegation

How many times have you been on the receiving end of a conversation that goes like this...

“Hey Heather, I wanted to talk to you about XYZ topic. Can we set up some time next week to talk?”

“Sure. I’d be happy to help with XYZ. My calendar looks open next week and should be up to date.”

Cue blank stare and awkward pause. Perhaps even a follow up a few minutes later asking whether I would set up the meeting.

This happens more often than I’d like to admit, and tends to be a recurring theme that I often hear from fellow female colleagues. Whether it be setting up meetings, remembering a colleague’s birthday, "keeping the peace" in a tense meeting, spending a half hour correcting typos in a presentation prepared by a colleague, scheduling your child’s doctor appointment, or keeping track of what you need in the fridge, it’s all work that needs to be done. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of work that often goes without proper recognition.

Invisible work— Arlene Kaplan Daniels coined the term in the 1980s. It’s doing the often boring, stressful, necessary tasks that typically are not valued socially or economically.

Invisible work chips away at your productivity throughout the day. You feel busy but find that you finish the day and haven’t accomplished any of the key tasks on your to-do list.

There are different types of invisible work, which include both physical tasks, as well as interpersonal or emotion-based tasks. Melody Wilding wrote an article in Forbes describing how emotional labor affects women's careers, in which she interviewed Gemma Hartley, author of the Harper Bazaar piece, “Women Arent's Nags - We're Just Fed Up.

As a certified people-pleaser, early in my career I wanted to be the "Yes" girl. The woman who could do it all and take care of the rest of the team, and do my work, and I would appear relaxed doing it. That being said, I found as I progressed through my career, there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done. I needed to focus on the bigger ticket items that enabled me to demonstrate my value within my team and the broader organization.

“Invisible Work” can impact your bottom line.

Time spent on “valueless” work can have real consequences with respect to compensation and promotion consideration as well. If you’re less able to demonstrate your value through “bigger ticket” work items (because you’re the primary person doing this type of work), it will be harder to push for that next promotion or a bump in salary at year end. Perhaps our historical willingness to do the “invisible work,” has been negatively impacting our ability to be promoted and paid in the long run, which of course intersects with the issue of equal pay.

Amy Westervelt created an Invisible Labor Calculator to help you understand the impact that invisible labor can have on your bottom line. Given that the majority of housework still falls on the women in the household, these effects can compound for women doing the invisible work at home and in the office.

How can we reset boundaries in the workplace (or at home) so you’re not always the “dumping ground” for the invisible work?

Resetting boundaries seems like a reasonable task when given the opportunity to “start fresh” at a new organization. For those of us who have chosen to stay at companies over a long period of time, it’s not as easy.

Perhaps you initially had the time to pick up the extra tasks (and of course, hadn’t yet become aware of this “invisible work” phenomenon). Now you find yourself in a more senior role within an organization and you must prioritize your work accordingly.

There are a number of strategies that some have found to be successful when combating the issue of invisible work.

1. Track your invisible work.

Pick a time period (say a week or so). Take a step back and look at the various invisible work that you do at work and around the home. After you’ve identified the invisible work, try to categorize the work by task.

Are you surprised by how much invisible work you do? You may find that it’s a lot more than you were expecting and/or realized.

2. Delegate where possible.

Identify the tasks that could be done by someone else and assess whether your time is better spent doing it yourself, or delegating.

“Emotional Labor” is a particular type of invisible work that can have a big impact (see Forbes article How Emotional Labor Affects Women's Careers . Challenge yourself to be open-minded on this one. At work, break the cycle of assuming that other women “do relationships better.” Ask a male colleague on the team to check in on the teammate who seems a bit off, or to coordinate a birthday card for a colleague.

At home, consider whether it’s worth hiring a cleaner to take care of the floors/kitchen/bathrooms. See What Having My Bathroom Cleaned Taught Me About Business and Delegating. Contemplate whether a babysitter/nanny/au pair would be helpful to your family. Find a way to better split responsibilities with your significant other.

There are a multitude of ways to delegate. Check out Delegating 101 for Women in Business for helpful tips to ensure you are successful in your attempts to delegate!

3. Push back on requests to set up meetings or complete other menial tasks, where appropriate.

The strategy that you use to “push back” may depend upon the personality that you encounter and the task at hand.

You may choose to simply ignore the email or question, or reiterate how busy you are in the hopes that they'll handle the task themselves. You could also take a more direct approach. For example, if someone is asking you to set up the meeting, let them know that your calendar is up to date and that they can feel free to set up time.

4. Make the invisible, visible.

When you (or others), have to do these tasks, make them visible. Use normal interaction as a way to share the work that you’re doing. If a colleague asks how the week has been, use it as an opportunity to discuss your contribution to the client pitch book that the team has been working on. Angela Fresne recently addressed the issue of visibility in the workplace, and provided additional tools that you can use to address this challenge.

Use this same approach at home as well. If your significant other asks how your day was, include a reference about how you were able to get a couple of loads of laundry done, cleaned the bathroom and started dinner so they’re aware of your contributions.

5. Acknowledge/praise others for their contributions

One key dependency in your ability to succeed in stepping away from these tasks is your ability to convince others to handle them instead. As such, (publicly and privately) acknowledging team contributions goes a long way, and links back to the point above about creating visibility.

Final thoughts

Are there other strategies that you have found helpful when dealing with “invisible work?” Would you like to learn more? Join us for the upcoming Executive Council breakfast discussing invisible work and delegating responsibilities, on Friday October 4th, 2019..

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Heather Cleary is on the leadership team of the NYC Ellevate Chapter, and is a lawyer and compliance officer in the Finance industry. Heather is passionate about women supporting women and helping others make valuable connections.


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Patricia Smith

We should be careful about recommending delegation of tasks to a cleaning person or nanny... not everyone can afford that option so an effort should be made to identify possible solutions that are available to everyone.

October 15, 2019

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