We all talk about it. We all want it. Workplace Flexibility – That vague phrase that conjures up images of PJs and fuzzy slippers, a businessperson leisurely reviewing email with a coffee mug in hand and the morning news on the TV.
But how important is it really?
To me, a new mom with a previously established career, very.
As an older mom, I had worked for many years to establish my career before I had my son. Long days, long nights, lots of travel, and emergency conference calls were the norm. And I loved it. I was in the thick of things, on the cutting edge, making things happen. I was the person who was called when there was an issue, an emergency. The person who could jump in at any time and help. The person who never said No.
But as I neared the end of my maternity leave, I knew that things had to change. I knew implicitly that it would be extremely difficult to juggle the professional role I was in with a newborn. I doubted that I could fully tend to my son when I was scheduled to be on call, or when I was an escalation point for emergency issues. I fretted about the 1-2 hour commute to and from the office each day (wasted time). I worried about being so far away from my son in the case of an emergency. And it led me to very seriously consider leaving my career. I just couldn’t imagine being able to give my all to both conflicting worlds.
But then, as I returned to the office, I was given the opportunity to move into a new role. A role that I was not only excited about professionally, but that would allow me some increased flexibility. Telecommute days, earlier work shifts, the absence of consistent and ongoing on-call responsibilities. A role that came with increased responsibility, but also increased flexibility.
And to date, it has worked out amazingly well for both me and my employer. I am able to schedule times in and out of the office as it makes sense – ensuring I am in the office when appropriate, and working from home when appropriate. I am saving literally hours a day in commuting time. I am close to my son in the event of an emergency. I am working an earlier shift that is more conducive to the schedule of a young child. Simply said, the flexibility has allowed me to retain my career, and remain successful, while layering in the additional responsibilities of parenting a young child.
And believe me when I say that there are no TVs on, no PJs, no mid-day drinks or parties. I’m not trying to watch my child while I work. It is truly all work all day. In peace and quiet and with the ability to continue as long as necessary to reach my goals – vs. scheduling my day around a bus schedule.
And my employer? For starters, they get 2+ more hours out of me a day. I consistently start 1 to 1.5 hours before my shift, rarely take lunch (although it is wonderful to have the option should I need to run an errand), and often work late. I log in on weekends to tie up loose ends. I am able to work in a quiet home office with no knocks on the door, no idle chit-chat in the breakroom, and with the ability to make important calls without interruption.
I follow the same philosophy with my own team. Incidentally, not one of them is based out of my local office (and only two are even in my state), so our relationships are almost entirely virtual. And for high-performing team members, what matters to me is that they are A) available when I need them (I don’t ever want to be kept waiting for an instant message response), and B) producing quality and timely deliverables. How do we get around our geographic challenges? Technology. Holding people accountable. We are in contact daily over the phone, Office Communicator, email, and via virtual meetings.
And it works. Well.
I recently conducted a survey with my team – a required survey asking questions about retention and the like. The number one response I received in terms of what would motivate a team member to start looking elsewhere? Lack of workplace flexibility. So I suppose I am not the only one it is important to.
Which makes it all the more disheartening when I hear that Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, has banned telecommuting. And that Best Buy is following suit – with a flimsy provision that all telecommuters must have written approval from their managers.
Why are these organizations moving backwards? Is this a thinly veiled attempt to clean house? Poor management? Lack of employee accountability? Both are flailing organizations and the recent announcements seem desperate, with a stick-to-the-wall-ish quality that doesn’t appear to be well considered.
I am most disappointed with Mayer’s announcement and approach. After all, she is the mother of an infant herself. A mother who infamously returned to work a mere 2 weeks after giving birth. Is a mother even physically healed at two weeks?? Are these the lengths she feels she must go to compete with her male contemporaries, to make a name for herself? And what about the impact to other women? As it is, the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world with no federal law mandating paid time off for new parents (in fact, 1 of only 4 countries internationally) – but that’s another post.
What kind of example is Mayer setting? The new Yahoo mother who doesn’t return to work 4, 5, or 6 weeks after delivery, or who opts to leverage her full <gasp> 12 weeks of job protection – what’s in store for her? Is she labeled, whether overtly or tacitly, uncommitted to her career? Has Mayer set a bar that other high-performing women in her organization or industry are going to feel compelled to meet?
Either way, her approach is at best a bit hypocritical. Perhaps returning to work a mere few weeks after delivery wouldn’t be so bad if other mothers had the option to build out a full private nursery, complete with nannies, next door to their offices. I don’t see too much of a difference between that and the mother who works from home.
I’m told that Mayer concedes that this situation wasn’t handled as well as it could have been. But that she walked into the office one day midweek to find that nobody was around, and it pissed her off! She was joking, surely, yet I truly hope that wasn’t the impetus for such a short-sighted approach.
Which brings us to the question of tipping point. What is it? How much flexibility is enough to retain key employees, while meeting some employers’ need for hands-on control? What’s going to happen 2 or 3 decades from now? I see the single corporate office becoming a thing of the past. Maybe a small corporate office remains, but local hubs pop up for telecommuters to come together as appropriate for synergy, etc. Technology nearly eliminates the need for actual face time. The office will become wherever the employee is.
And I am a huge proponent. Once more employers begin catching on to this secret sauce of employee satisfaction, it is a win all around. Employees will remain engaged and motivated, retention will increase, and employers will benefit from the fruits of their labor – along with decreased overhead.
And then perhaps working mommies will have a real shot at “having it all.”