This past Sunday was Mother’s Day in the U.S. and I was on an airplane heading out for a business trip, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about the ongoing juggle of work and family. There was an interesting discussion over on the Wall Street Journal’s The Juggle column a couple of months ago that really stuck with me. It was about a question they received from a working mom who was clearly struggling with how to balance it all. In the comments, readers debated over the mom’s concern that she had missed 5 major pre-school events, as an example of the challenges she was facing. You can read that debate here: http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2010/03/08/on-the-tradeoffs-and-choices-we-make-to-juggle/
In my experience, the solution to any work-life challenge sits in two places: the employee (and by extension, the family), and the company. And it all comes down to one basic principle: flexibility.
Companies need to be more flexible
While companies have made huge strides in flexibility over the years, there’s still significant reluctance to offer the kind of flexibility that would enable more moms to combine families with successful careers. Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, and others have highlighted flexible work places, but it’s still more the exception than the rule. While some companies are going full scale on flexibility and moving to ROWE – Results Only Work Environments – others resist any kind of deviation from a standard work day and place.
I’d rate HP better than most. I’ve seen a wide range of flex, depending on things like the business and the job, from roles that require a very specific work schedule and location, to teams that are distributed across the world and flex their schedules and work place as needed.
Recently I had a fascinating discussion with a senior HR leader whose company (not HP) had recently put a “prohibition” on any kind of flexible work schedule. He said they had tried allowing a few people to come in later or leave earlier than the standard time, and it hadn’t worked, they put a stop to it. He went on to say that one of the things they needed to change in their culture was to get employees to understand that they need to be available to the company pretty much 24/7, because the company was becoming more global, and they need to improve their productivity and speed. It’s a family owned company and in their market the consumer buying decision for the products the company makes and sells is typically made by women. Does anyone else see the problem here? When I talked to a friend who works at the company – high performing senior manager, female, no kids – and I asked her how she likes her job, she said she’d like to find something else because they’re old school on flexibility. She loved everything else about the company but she still hopes to leave.
Employees need to be more flexible
In return for flexibility on things like schedule and location of work, employees have to make trade-offs. Do you go into the office later than most people so you can get your kids on the bus? Return that favor to the company by ending the work day later, or getting started on your work before the kids get up, or after everyone else goes to bed. Willingly take on those late night calls to the region across the world from yours and take the business trip when you need to. Do you have flexibility in where you work? Repay that by being accessible and easy to find. Technology is your friend – make sure you’re easy to reach and responsive. With smart use of instant messaging, my team has shared information across multiple sites and countries faster than you could walk down a hallway or place the phone calls.
As a working parent, you learn that you need to compromise. The mom from the WSJ article may need to decide if a different job would be better for her, or if she can be ok with missing a few school events or cover them in a different way (this is part of why I choose to make tradeoffs to live close to grandparents). Mother’s Day on the airplane was ok with me, because I chose that flight as part of my balancing act.
The tradeoffs are not always easy choices, and balance doesn’t mean that work and family are in complete equilibrium at all times. The person who feels good overall about their work-life balance has enough flexibility on both sides to make it all work. What’s the benefit to the flexible company? Employees who are more engaged and committed to their companies, willing to go the extra mile and give their discretionary effort.
Companies that offer flexibility are going to have the competitive advantage in talent. How do you go about turning old school into new school on flexibility? I’ll save that for a future post.
In the meantime, what do you think? Share in the comments.
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