She’s currently in primary school and she has a bright future. She’s spirited and ambitious. Her enthusiasm towards problem solving, thirst for knowledge, natural curiosity and charisma readies her for success in the ADF.
She’s going to be an Army Officer – she just doesn’t know it yet.
This little girl is the face of my inner motive – the work I do may not benefit me or those in the cohort behind me… but if I fail to drive change for her – I have fallen short.
Throughout my career, the recurring theme of advice that I received in my annual performance report was that I needed to address my work-life balance. If only I knew then what I know now. For much of my career, I personally suffered and professionally succeeded on account of my high-functioning anxiety and my heightened capacity to manage the time-bind. The never-ending list of tasks and competing priorities, the high tempo capability maintenance requirements, and the all-important leadership and command related responsibilities – I took it all in my stride.
5 months short of completing my career milestone of Sub-Unit Command my life changed.
In August 2017, my husband and I welcomed our first born, a long-awaited babe to whom I vowed to commit my time and energy, even at the expense of my career. I took my full entitlement of absence, a total of 66 weeks of paid and unpaid leave, before literally swapping roles with my husband. He took on the role of full-time stay-at-home-Dad working part-time, so I could return to work full-time to complete the Australian Command and Staff Course at the Australian War College. In a beautiful unplanned turn of events, I simultaneously grew another little human and we welcomed our second child just a handful of weeks prior to celebrating my graduation.
Fast forward another 66 weeks.
In February 2021 a chapter of my career started that no-one had ever trained or prepared me for. Playing all the roles: Army Officer. Army wife. Mother of two under three. Daughter of ageing parents. All of a sudden, the time-bind I had previously mastered was incomprehensibly, overwhelmingly difficult. I confronted 2021 as the year that would make or break my employment deal with Army. Either I could pursue the best of both worlds or Army would lose me. 2021 was either going to be the beginning of the rest of my career or a less than ideal end – because there’s one thing I vowed to do and that was to prioritise my kids over my employer. I set out to achieve this whilst maintaining true to my core values of servitude and humility… and trying to keep my career afloat.
If I can’t crack this nut – what chance does she have.
Time was my currency. In the simplest of terms, I bought back my own time from Army. For the first time in my career, I decided and declared that Army did not have rights to ALL my time (unless of course I was formally called for).
I decided to leverage the arrangements of a Flexible Service Determination (an employment offer known as SERCAT 6) coupled with a Flexible Work Arrangement in my pursuance of work life balance: to balance my paid work with this season of life.
Ironically, for the duration of 2021 I was employed as the Staff Officer Grade Two – Total Workforce System (TWS) in the Army People Capability Branch at Army Headquarters. Charged with the responsibility to drive change within Army that would mature and optimise a system that among other things empowers members to address their work life balance at varying stages in their career.
At its core the TWS has a Service Spectrum made up of five distinctive active-employment offers (SERCAT 3,4,5,6,7) some of which can be paired with Service Options (C,D,G). All members of the ADF reside within a SERCAT and some choose to be engaged in a SERVOP. This range of choice empowers us as serving members to have a life-long career – to swap and change, and change again into categories/options that align to our work life balance needs at different points throughout our lives.
SERCAT 6 is not a gender specific employment offer, any member of the Permanent Force of the ADF can apply to transfer. Statistics from the 2021 TWS Evaluation identify that it is typically adopted by more women than men, specifically those returning to work following a period of maternity leave.
Regardless of SERCAT/SERVOP, all members are empowered to negotiate a temporary Flexible Work Arrangement with their supervisor. Choice is synonymous with balance. Being given the power to choose how you serve means you have the capacity to balance the time-bind. Right?
If only it was that simple.
I consider myself fairly insightful – but the realities of SERCAT 6 were far more complex than I was prepared for.
We’ve much to mature if the system is going to be optimised for her.
After a critical reflection of myself and our organisation I offer you my top 5 lessons learned, reframed here as practical things to consider before commencing a SERCAT 6 engagement:
- Redefining what success looks like. Be clear on your motive and have a firm understanding of why you are forgoing a component of your salary. If this new arrangement works for you – what will success look like? You need to be able to measure success in the heat of the emotions that may flood your mind. I’m not doing enough, this isn’t working, what was I thinking, I’m letting the team down. You are doing more than enough. It is working – it’s just not service as you’ve known it, and by the way, the team will be just fine.
- Being transparent with your supervisor. This is not a game of poker. Declare your hand upfront – be clear with what you can offer and what you cannot. Establish what is expected of you and exactly what components of your “job description” you are not responsible for. Which bit won’t you be doing? Figure it out early and make sure your colleagues and subordinates are across it. You cannot afford to be battling performance expectations that cannot be realised.
- Saying no. If you’re a “yes-woman”, this one hurts! SERCAT 6 is a full-service obligation for less money in your pocket. You need to maintain your health, fitness, deployability and your professional development as if you were SERCAT 7 – but you’re paid less – which means the time you have available to do your job is TIGHT. The ADF isn’t asking you to do it all for less money – the agreement is you’ll do less. So, figure out quickly how to say no. It’s a whole new ball game of prioritisation and risk management.
- Creating healthy boundaries. What are your boundaries and how will you manage when they are compromised and become porous? The longer you have served in a full-time capacity, the harder this may be to address. The institution will gainfully employ you for every spare second you offer it – paid or unpaid – by academic literature standards it’s greedy. SERCAT 6 is permission to reprioritise where you invest your energy – you need to develop and establish mechanisms to protect the very balance you’re trying to achieve.
- Adapting. When you are employed alongside full-time team members, dynamically balancing part-time work feels incredibly inefficient. I’m spending half of my day catching up, I’m not getting anything done, I’m not value-adding here. Form-Storm-and-Normalise it. It may be a foreign battle rhythm but it’s worth fighting through. The friction you’re experiencing is completely normal. The integrated workforce is the workforce of the future. You’ll be ok. Crack on.
Whatever you do – do it with the confidence that the ADF has invested heavily in you. The ADF values you – your net worth doesn’t change whether you’re working a 20hr or 40+hr week. The ADF wants to retain you. You are at the centre of its capability. SERCAT 6 is a valid option.
Where to from here?
In 2022, I’ve signed up for round #2 of flexible service, nuanced by a slight change in personal circumstances. With many lessons learned and an abundance of support from my Chain of Command, I’m primed to exploit the opportunity I have been given both as an Army member and in my role as SO2 Workforce Strategy, AHQ: to influence the maturity of a small but significant cog in our workforce system and give her a fighting chance to further transform the way we work in our military.
After all – she deserves it.
- Here’s the link to read more on the ADF Total Workforce System.
- To stimulate your own reflection on Defence Values see David Guthrie’s article ‘Unified Defence Values and Behaviours’ on The Cove.
- For an introduction to Work Life Balance literature, I recommend Doris Ruth Eikhof’s article ‘Introduction: What work? What life? What balance?’
Looking for more on this topic? Annie has agreed to write a Propel Her mini-series on Pursuing Work Life Balance in the Military. Coming soon in 2022!
About the author:
Annie North holds a Christian worldview and is a mother of two, ‘Army-wife’, and current serving Logistics Officer in the Australian Army. She is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy, Royal Military College – Duntroon and Australian War College with undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications awarded by the University of New South Wales and Australian National University. As a service-woman seeking the best of both worlds – work and life – she is an advocate of Flexible Service and the Total Workforce System, and offers this article as a reflective piece concerning her own experiences working part-time in the permanent force.