Late on a Monday night, road warrior Natasha Engan gets off the plane at Chicago O’Hare International Airport and drives her rental car southwest on I-55, heading 135 miles to Bloomington, Ill.
She’s a vice president of sales for a major technology company. She’ll be in meetings the next morning, back on a plane to O’Hare, then down to Dallas. Three nights later, she’ll head home to her kids, Samantha, 6, and Bennett, 4.
“I do [trips like] that almost every week of the year,” she says. “I’m in sales, and my customers are all over.”
Her husband, Irwin Schwartz, is also a road warrior. He’s a lawyer focused on business litigation and dispute resolution, and his clients are almost always a long way from his office. He’s gone 30 to 40 percent of weeknights, all year. “Natasha and I try not to be away at the same time,” he says, “but it happens.”
Their parents and other family are nowhere close, so how do they do it? Sure, they have great helpers — “tag-team nannies,” Schwartz calls them — but balancing home and work life is a tall order.
That husband and wife both travel a lot — they’re both Executive Platinum members of American’s AAdvantage program — makes them exceptional, but globalization, leaner management, increased mobility and other factors make it more likely that one head of household will need to travel. Even if only one spouse or partner travels, nurturing relationships is a challenge.
Tim Griffy, a senior partner at a global accounting firm, says, “The evolution of air travel has enabled us to do things that would have been impossible a few decades ago. And along the way, it has fundamentally altered home life for many of us. We take for granted that we can get to the other side of the world in half a day, but we have to be as responsive to our relationships at home as we are to our business commitments — you need to work on that, and work hard.”
The road warriors polled for this story were all modest about their mastery of the home-and-road balance. When asked, each had their own this-works-for-me recommendations. Their ideas may have been expressed differently, but they all tend to coalesce around what we might call “The 10 Best Home-Warrior Practices.”
1. IF YOU HAVE A SPOUSE AND KIDS, remember that both have needs; ignoring one or the other will damage both sets of relationships. “I love my kids,” Schwartz says, “but I worry about the relationship with my wife too.” There’s a need for balance: for “date night” and for fun stuff with the kids.
2. DON'T TRY TO CREATE an “accounting system,” in which you try to balance the debits of travel with credits on return. Schwartz and others say this is hard because the temptation is to overcompensate when the traveler returns home — and because we’re not sure how to measure the cost of being away. “If I feel guilty, does buying stuff or coddling too much make things better or worse?” he wonders.
3. FEMALE PARENTS deal with the double standard that Engan calls “mother guilt. This absolutely exists, and it’s just wrong to deny it,” she says with a sigh. “I’m lucky at work because my company is very supportive — we have a woman CEO — and I don’t feel especially guilty. But lots of people try to make me feel bad.”
4. SET PRIORITIES AT HOME; you won’t have time for everything. Schwartz says, “I played hockey until six years ago, when I tore a rotator cuff. … I still hope to get back to it at 52, but time with the kids is more important.” Managing the balance means taking Parkinson’s Law to heart: Almost 60 years ago, British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson famously said, “Work expands to fill the time available,” an adage as true at work as it is at home. Time is more fluid than we think, and successful travelers find ways to allocate their time effectively.
5. PRACTICE FLEXIBILITY, and encourage your employer to do likewise. It’s a two-way street. Spousal or family needs arise unexpectedly, and you may have to cancel a trip. Equally, when able, you should volunteer to step in when your organization needs someone to travel.
6. GET GOOD AT TRIP PREP — things like packing and bill paying — to maximize the time you can spend with family the day (or day before) you leave.
7. LEARN HOW TO COMMUNICATE while on the road. Griffy reminds us that Skype and similar technology have made things easier but that travelers need to build habits, “so staying in touch is like brushing your teeth.” And master the practicals, like time zones. There’re literally apps for that so you don’t end up calling in the middle of the night or while everyone is away from home.
8. KEEP SOME MEMENTOS. Physical objects or images that remind you of home provide great comfort. Maybe it’s a picture used as your laptop’s wallpaper or something you keep in your wallet. Some warriors even travel with electronic photo frames, unpacking them when they get to the hotel room.
9. DEVELOP A RETURN ROUTINE. Ken Gilbert, a Dallas resident who recently left his job after three decades of international travel, says you’ll find it easier and less stressful to reintegrate, and your family will too. “One thing that [my wife], Peggy, and I did almost every Friday night when I would get back into town was go to the neighborhood Tex-Mex restaurant. It was date night — the perfect time to catch up with each other on the week, especially the mundane stuff that each had missed. We were such regulars that the bartenders knew our drink order.”
10. LASTLY, WHEN YOU'RE AWAY, don’t forget to look in the hotel-room mirror: How are you doing? Are your schedule and pace sustainable? Are you eating well? Making time for fitness? If all the travel seems to be taking a toll, remember there are always alternatives. Everyone — you, your partner and your children — will suffer if you can’t make it work. Everything is connected.
Rob Britton, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., has worked in travel, including airlines, since 1969. He now consults and teaches as a guest lecturer at business schools worldwide, and he still tries his best to be home for his family’s important events.