Interviews / PR & Communications

Balancing the Grind with Laura Stevens, Head of Communications at UNSW

Laura Stevens is the Head of Communications at UNSW, where she leads the university’s external and internal communications teams.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I grew up in Sydney. I’m naturally curious and I’ve always enjoyed writing, so I decided to study journalism. I studied at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, where I lived on campus and worked at local media outlets National Radio News and Prime TV News.

Working in regional media was a great experience as it gave me an opportunity to meet and interview a broad range of people. After uni, I worked as a journalist in print, TV, radio and online media for organisations including ABC in Australia and Deutsche Welle in Germany. 

Following a few years in journalism, I made the switch to government as I wanted to work in portfolio areas that made an impact on people’s lives. I was a media and policy adviser for a senior federal Cabinet minister for four years, then moved to Head of Media and Communications at ASX listed Sydney Airport.

Both roles were really interesting, involving travel, high profile issues, and encounters with people from Prime Ministers to the Dalai Lama. I was particularly proud of the partnerships I developed with the government, tourism organisations and industry to drive jobs, the visitor economy and economic activity. 

I then took a leadership role in local government as Group Manager Communications, Engagement and Events at Inner West Council. The role had a focus on culture and capacity building following the amalgamation of three former councils.

I managed and restructured a team of 25 to include new communications functions such as social media, creative services and internal communications, and delivered major projects such as a new website and council policies. A new CEO started while I was on maternity leave and made my role redundant, which was a massive shock. I had to apply and interview for roles while juggling a two-year-old and nine-month-old. 

In 2019, I was appointed Head of Communications at UNSW Sydney, where I lead the university’s external and internal communications teams, promote the important work of our researchers and academics, and support our executive leadership team.

It’s been a busy and challenging period for the higher education sector. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to evolve how we deliver communications to our 6,000+ staff and manage the largest workplace change program in the organisation’s 70-year history.

I’ve also worked on major announcements, issues and events including the university’s divestment from fossil fuel investments, Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and the Australian Mental Health Prize. 

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

I’d love to say I start my day with a run but that’s never happened!

After dropping the kids at daycare, I either head into the office or work from home depending on what my day looks like and who I am meeting.

Breakfast is usually something quick, easy and on the go, like a smoothie. I’ll start my day by reading the morning’s media clips to see what’s in the news and whether there are any issues I need to be aware of. I’ll also scan my emails to check if there’s anything urgent I need to action. 

At 9.15am, either I or one of my team members dial into our daily morning media conference via Microsoft Teams. After that, I usually have meetings with university stakeholders for projects ranging from developing a communications plan for a particular issue to working on publications such as the annual report or donor magazine.

If I’m in the office, I’ll try to use lunch as an opportunity to catch up with a colleague or check in with one of my team members. If I’m at home, I might do some food prep to make a start on dinner for the kids. 

In terms of workflow throughout the day, I review, edit and approve various communications including media releases, website stories and internal newsletters. I also liaise with journalists on media inquiries and stories. No day is the same, and as a result, I’m very nimble and can adapt to change both at work and home! 

If working remotely, I keep in touch with my team and colleagues via Microsoft Teams chats throughout the day to make sure we’re on top of everything. 

At around 5pm, I’ll collect the kids from daycare. If it’s a nice day I’ll take the kids to the park and scan any late emails/Teams chats while they play. During dinner and bath time, I switch off from work and stay away from the computer. After that, I’ll try to watch the evening news and catch up on any final work for the day before putting the kids to bed. 

My sleep is usually interrupted by my two-year-old, so I get to bed early and read a book to wind down at the end of the day.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

I’m fortunate to be able to do a 50/50 split of office and working from home since COVID. This has been a game changer for me in terms of managing my schedule, doing daycare drop off/pick up and fitting everything into the day. I love my local library, so to mix things up I might walk to the library and work from there one day a week. 

This year, I’m also working four instead of five days so I can spend some quality time with my daughter before she starts school next year and she finds me too embarrassing to hang out with. 

I’m very supportive of flexible working arrangements. All of my team members work flexibly and most of them work part time. Managing this can be a challenge, so we have regular team meetings and an ongoing Teams chat to hand over work and make sure everything gets actioned. I make sure to have regular 1:1 WIPs with my team members, as well as team meetings, in person.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

For me, it’s accepting imperfection. I’m not a perfect parent or a perfect manager but I do my best at both. I’m all about planning and prioritising. I schedule everything, from work to quality time. Sometimes the priority on a particular day will be work (e.g. an important deadline); other times it will be personal (e.g. a sick child). 

I think flexibility goes both ways so I am not strict about the way I approach it. Sometimes that might mean picking up my kids earlier from day care and heading to the park before it gets dark, but then doing a split shift and hopping online later in the evening to finish some work.

I’m not great at asking for help but the kids’ dad and my parents do a lot. I outsource where I can, such as paying for a cleaner to come once a fortnight. 

I try not to overcommit the kids and they don’t do any formal activities. At this age I think parks, play dates and quality time are fine. If I need to put my daughter on the iPad for half an hour to get something done, I’ll do it and I won’t beat myself up about it. 

I’m usually the social scheduler so I’m learning to take a step back and let others organise activities on occasion. My nightlife is limited but I try to make it out to pub trivia once a month and a theatre show every few months. I’ve recently joined a writing group, as I’d like to get back into creative writing as well as professional writing. 

I’ve also been known to book a staycation at a hotel in the city to get a decent night’s sleep!

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I read Gretchen Rubin’s books about happiness, habit forming, decluttering and personality types (The Happiness Project, Better than Before, Outer Order Inner Calm and The Four Tendencies) and developed a few resolutions to hopefully improve my habits and happiness as a result.

  1. Keep moving. A gym routine is unrealistic for me, so I try to walk wherever possible (walking my two dogs, taking the stairs instead of the lift), and get to the gym for Zumba, Pilates, yoga or circuit when I can.
  2. Always carry a book. I fit reading into my life by taking a book wherever I go and reading instead of scrolling on my phone.
  3. Create space between home and work. Working from home is great but it can make it hard to switch off. I have all notifications apart from calls and texts switched off on my phone. I check my emails and social media often enough that I don’t need my phone constantly buzzing. 
  4. Sleep whenever possible. I am blessed with a two-year-old who has only slept through the night once so I need sleep for my sanity. This might mean taking a nap with my son on the weekend.
  5. Mindfulness. I’m a planner which means I’m very future focused. I’m trying to be mindful and enjoy the moment a bit more.
  6. Fill up my bucket. This is a phrase my daughter brought home from day care and it’s a good adage! Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup (or bucket!). Reading, drinking tea, walking and meditating do the trick for me.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I’m an avid reader and my goal is to read 100 books this year. I’ve just finished number 31, The Intelligence Trap by David Robson, about how individuals and organisations can make better decisions. 

I’m a reading/writing learner so audiobooks or even ebooks don’t work for me and I prefer physical books. I read a combination of fiction and non-fiction. Fiction-wise, this year I’ve enjoyed Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, Normal People by Sally Rooney and In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume.

In terms of non-fiction, I’ve recently read Julia Gillard’s autobiography My Story, Craig Wright’s The Hidden Habits of Genius, Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, On Money by Rick Morton, and Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. 

I think every woman (and every man for that matter) should read The Wife Drought and Men at Work by Annabel Crabb, and See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill. 

I keep a couple of notebooks/quote books to write down my favourite quotes from books I’ve read or funny things the kids have said.

I tend to listen to podcasts in the car. (Unless my daughter is in the car, in which case it’s Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off on repeat.) Usually Freakonomics, Heavyweight, Triple J’s Like a Version, BBC World Service’s Documentary podcast, and some Australian true crime like The Australian’s The Night Driver or ABC’s Unravel. 

I feel like I spend way too much time on emails already so I’ve unsubscribed to most newsletters. I like Telum for industry news and movements. I’ve recently subscribed to Kill Your Darlings. Brain Pickings is good if you have the time and headspace for some deep reading. On a weekend, I might dip into some feature writing like SMH’s Good Weekend. I also subscribe to a couple of competition newsletters; I’ve won two overseas holidays by entering online competitions!

For news, I’ll generally click on whatever articles take my fancy via Twitter or LinkedIn. On Twitter, for some lighter fare, I love Mark Humphries’ political satire/sketches and Kieran Hodgson’s “bad TV impressions”

In terms of TV, I watch a reasonable amount of news and current affairs, mainly ABC and SBS (e.g. ABC News, 7.30, Four Corners, Media Watch, Insight). I have Foxtel IQ so I record shows and watch them whenever I can fit them in. I also love quiz shows like Jeopardy, Mastermind and Hard Quiz. I’ve been on three quiz shows myself and will be on Mastermind in May this year. 

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I’m pretty old school and still use a paper diary and a to-do list. Rather than buying fancy stationery, I write my daily to do list on hotel notepads, which is about as close as I get to travel these days!

For work, Teams has been really helpful keeping in touch with people working flexibly. My team and I have hosted staff forums for our 6000+ people via Teams Live. I also use Yammer for internal news. I’m a member of the university’s Major Incident and Response Team which uses Noggin for incidents and emergencies. 

I have an iPhone and I just have basic apps, such as Notes and banking. I’m a bit of an Instagram addict and run a few Instagram accounts including @lorexstevex, one for gluten free eating @glutenfreekout and I’ve just started one for my book reviews @bijoubookreviews.

At home, I have a Thermomix to help with cooking for the kids. My daughter is Coeliac, as well as a fussy eater, so I need to make most of her food from scratch and can’t rely on takeaway. I feel like an infomercial mum saying this, but it’s been life changing!

I also love my Bose Bluetooth speaker for listening to music (I just saw the musical Hamilton in Sydney so that soundtrack is on rotation) and podcasts at home.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern or Annabel Crabb. And Oprah, of course! 

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

You do you! Do what works for you and your family. I’m still breastfeeding my two-year-old! It might not be for everyone but it works for us. 

Ignore well-meaning but ill-informed advice.

Also, be kind to yourself, and to others. Mental health is just as important as physical health. 

Finally, a few of my favourite quotes:

  • “The days are long, but the years are short.” Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
  • “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.” Tina Fey, Bossypants
  • “Done is better than perfect.” Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
  • “I use every scrap of the day like an Italian farmer uses all of the pig.” Annabel Crabb, The Wife Drought
  • “Resilience is like a muscle. It grows stronger with use.” Julia Gillard, My Story
  • “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.