When Hillary Clinton almost won the Presidency, were more women inspired to “lean in” toward the C-Suite? Probably not. Many highly educated, talented women don’t fret the glass ceiling—they want and need to lean in halfway to less life-consuming, more sustainable, flexible work that accommodates child and aging parent caretaker roles.
More often than not, women have a reasonable wish list for flexibility. It’s not the case that all want part-time jobs; many are willing to work more than full-time schedules if they’re not chained to an employer’s desk. The most frequent request? An ability to start the workday a bit later so they can get children on the bus and feel they have some participation in the school day.
Most women would like to work from home at least one day a week—not to get facials or go shopping—but to have a regular day on which they can be present at a child’s doctor appointment or serve as a classroom volunteer. With increasing numbers of women having direct or oversight care for aging parents, one or two days at home is desirable for confidential financial and health conversations with doctors and family members.
A huge rise in telecommuting (9 million U.S. workers telecommute at least half the week) is proof that productive work exists at home. Though the workday is still technically considered early morning to late afternoon, employees can step away for a couple of hours and make up for that time before the sun rises or later at night.
The likelihood that minor flexibility is allowed increases as company size decreases. Though many big corporations are loosening traditional reins, there’s still a lot of bureaucratic red tape. It’s the smaller companies that are more nimble, progressive, and able to create even ad hoc flexibility that’s part of a collaborative and supportive team culture.
To be fair, it’s not surprising that many large employers consider flexibility “the other F word.” With a large workforce, it can feel chaotic if everyone is coming and going all hours of the workday. The responsibility to fix the problem, however, lies with both employer and employee. Too often employees lob a simple ask like, “Is it OK if I work from home on Fridays?” The easy answer to a simple ask is “no.” When employees make a professional pitch for flexibility, it is granted about 80% of the time.
Employees need to outline exactly how the alternative schedule will work—addressing how meetings will be handled, how supervisors will manage off site, and providing suggested systems so that projects keep moving and nothing falls through the cracks.
On the employer side, greater attention should be paid to flexibility as an overall employee benefit—regardless of gender or caretaking roles. Simple policies can be instituted to help even large teams reach maximum productivity. An example would be to designate certain hours that all team members should be on the job—whether working at home or in the office. That timeframe could be 10 to 4, encouraging employees to schedule doctor appointments, meetings with teachers, or other personal matters in the early morning or late in the day. Team members would then know that a critical mass of their colleagues would be available during core hours for formal meetings or easily reachable when questions arise.
That all sounds good, until there are the twists and turns of life. Snow days, sick children, or an elderly parent’s fall interrupt both work and life. It’s difficult to predict or prevent these problems, but a very visible “give and take” can ease workplace pain. It doesn’t cost employers anything to build a culture of acceptance and trust.
Be direct and let your employees know you expect them to make wise decisions that don’t jeopardize personal or professional obligations. Give them leeway to get work done at home or at off hours, and set simple expectations that flexibility works both ways. When you give employees the opportunity to blend work and life, you’ll see invaluable appreciation in the form of every deadline met, longer hours at crisis times, and loyalty for many years to come.
How to make a professional pitch for flexibility and make alternative work structures a benefit for both employers and employees is a focus of my upcoming book, “Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office is Not for Every Woman & What to Do Instead” (Nicholas Brealey, Hachette Book Group, October 2018)
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