Museums and Work/Life Balance in a Digital World…plus a P.S. for Paris in Honor of Elaine Heumann Gurian

work life balance

As you know, Anne and I spent two days in Washington, D.C. at the Intercom meeting. One of the many conversations we participated in had to do with work/life balance. Actually, the conversation started out as a discussion of museum directors who believe long days are appropriate, and mutated into what leaders, department heads and directors expect from their staff in terms of time. One example offered was a museum leader who isn’t happy if her staff isn’t working at least a 12-hour day. Apparently she’s not a fan of staff who go home at what might be considered a “normal” hour.

We’ve heard this before, not constantly, but enough that it’s concerning. In fact, it came up in the discussion of family issues in this blog a few weeks ago, when women without children commented that being childless meant they were often the ones expected to stay late while people with children left to relieve the nanny or watch a soccer game no questions asked.

My question is why? Is there really a need for anyone, regardless of their family situtation, to stay four hours longer than the normal workday on a regular basis? And, when you combine a long work day with the fact that many employers expect exempt staff to respond to emails regardless of the time of day, then the idea of work/life balance becomes a bit ridiculous. Can you ever give yourself permission to shut work off? Do you?

Are you a leader who discusses how frequently you want staff to respond to email? Within an hour? In minutes? Within a week? And more importantly, what written or verbal expectations do you have regarding email and exempt staff? Are there unspoken expectations that even if they’re told not to respond to emails after business hours, those who do are the favored few, while those who don’t, aren’t?

To complicate matters, the digitization of everything blurs all the lines between work and private life. After all, you can sit in a staff meeting and read a text from your child as easily as one from a colleague. And while it’s great to hear that your daughter passed her math test or your son doesn’t have Lyme disease, the burden is on everyone to make sure that despite the blurred lines, that work gets done. Last, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s likely our own attitudes are shaped by the culture of immediacy that comes with owning an iPhone. Everything is heightened not just the world of work.

Let us know how you and your staff manage the work/life balance thing–especially when it comes to digital communications.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. It’s hard to write or talk about anything this weekend without the horrific happenings in Paris intruding. I hope all of you who are museum leaders will channel your inner Elaine Heumann Gurian this week and think about how your museum, site, organization can connect and deal/cope/unpack what’s happened. Is it enough to acknowledge the terror in the world and offer up a quiet space? Are you using social media to reach your audience about Friday’s events? Last, are there stories in your collection or site that speak to issues of ambush, pain, and loss of control? I think Heumann Gurian would tell all of us that a sure way to be permanently sidelined is to not respond to the world’s events.


Intercom 2015: What We Heard; What We Talked About

Elaine Gurian

Anne and I returned Friday from a quick trip to Intercom 2015 in Washington, D.C. The three-day conference of global museum leaders, which began Wednesday evening, was Intercom’s first meeting in the United States. Unlike many conferences this one was small enough (140+ attendees from about 20 countries) to meet in museums around the city. Centered around three themes: The Essential MuseumThe Enduring Organization, and The Sustainable Leader, the conference drew a number of thoughtful folk and unleashed some deep conversations. Our panel, which included our colleague Marsha Semmel, was titled The Sustainable 21st-Century Leader. Marsha talked about VUCA leadership (here’s a good link for what VUCA is all about) and we gave a broad overview of some of the findings from our book. At some point in the future, we believe Intercom will post the conference PowerPoints if you are interested.

Below is a collection of random thoughts, comments, quotes and websites from our 36-hour trip.

  • Elaine Gurian opened the meeting (that’s her picture up at the top).  She cautioned her audience that while a portion of the museum-going public wants the same iconic museum it has always known, many institutions are expanding programs and collections access to include traditionally disenfranchised audiences–moving, as she put it, from formal temples to less formal gathering places.
  • Gurian reminded us that museums’ primary function is idealogical, and that by their very nature they often reinforce belonging or exclusion. For her, the essential museum of the future looks more like a drop-in service space and less like an occasional day-out museum. She said, “”All public institutions have a role in creating peaceful environments for strangers and thus bringing diverse audiences together.” And also asked, “Have you wondered about the diversity of the library and why libraries are more democratic than museums?”
  •  Gurian believes we need to change our basic mindset, understand each visitor’s questions, and create spaces that are in service to the visitor rather than the gallery. Her mantra: Institutions that are welcoming, porous, accepting.
  • From Laura Schiavo’s panel on Next, Not Best: Workshop on Sustainable Practices we heard from Tony Butler, executive director of the Derby Museums. What an alluring concept to engage community with museum-making and, in doing so, making meaning of the world.  We recommend you visit their website, which is equally alluring and fun.
  • Also part of that panel was Gretchen Jennings, creator of the blog The Empathetic Museum, who said that museums must undergo an inner transformation; and that museums must have a civic vision.
  • And from the Dirty Money session, Bob Janes’ quote via video, “that museums are sleepwalking into the future.”
  • Last, for everyone who thinks New York City is the apex of all things museum, think again. There is a lot going on in the nation’s capital.