Flexibility: who wants it, who gets it

July 14, 2014

“He’s a single dad...and he says it’s very obvious. When he asks for flexibility, or telecommuting, before he even finishes the sentence, it’s, “Oh, sure, you do what you need to do.” When his colleagues who are single moms ask for it, forget about. It’s, “Do you really have to go to the appointment? – Rachael Ellison

Rachael Ellison

My latest show, The Motherhood Factor, packs in a lot. Still, you can’t get everything into a podcast. My conversation with executive coach Rachael Ellison covered so much that's relevant to people's working lives, I’m breaking some of it out in a couple of blog posts.

This one focuses on that holy grail: workplace flexibility.

Last year the Yale School of Management sent me a press release about a study they did that said women, regardless of their status (executive level or hourly worker) are less likely to be granted some kind of flextime than men. The study essentially said women are still regarded suspiciously when they ask for time off, no matter the reason.

 Rachael knows one dad who works for the government whose experience bears out that research.

“He’s a single dad and he works with single moms,” she says. “And he says it’s very obvious. When he asks for flexibility, or telecommuting, before he even finishes the sentence, it’s, “Oh, sure, you do what you need to do.” When his colleagues who are single moms ask for it, forget about. It’s, “Do you really have to go to the appointment? Is it absolutely necessary?”

Which suggests a depressing double standard that reflects what Rachael talked about in the show: that when some women go back to work after maternity leave their bosses assume they're bound to slack off now they have a child.

“But I spoke to another dad, and he was saying he’s just terrified to ask for flexibility. Like…why should he have a need to ask for it?” The way this guy saw it, she says, “Women advocate for themselves. He almost feels like it’s not his place to put those needs out there in the workplace.”

Hello to more ingrained gender assumptions: that’s it’s not OK for a guy to speak up for his outside-work needs at work. He has to be all worker, all the time. But it’s OK for a woman to advocate for her needs, because she’s a mom, and being a mom comes first when you’re female (while also undermining your credibility in the workplace).

The key to getting some degree of flexibility, Rachael says, regardless of your sex, is in the ask.

Often, she says, by the time parents summon the gumption to ask a supervisor about flexibility, they’re exhausted and desperate. They may blurt out something like, “I just need to see more of my kid!”, which is more about their own needs than the company’s. If they do, chances are they’ll be met with a ‘no’. She says it’s key to frame your ask in a way that makes it clear the company is getting something out of this as well –  to be able to step back, think about the possibilities for you and the company, then present your case.

Some women need to be encouraged to see these areas of compromise in the first place.

“I think a lot of the challenges around seeing these possibilities are caught up in a lot of these women’s understanding of who they were as professionals before [they had kids],” says Rachael. “And their unwillingness to compromise, and their willingness to give 150% at their job.”

There is often a path forward, she says. You just have to find it, then be willing to take it.

You can hear more about the possibilities women don’t always see in the episodes Home as Career-Killer, Women, Work, and Sex, and Killing the Ideal Woman.

"I'm too crazed" (or managing your time)

October 25, 2013

Last month I tweeted this Harvard Business Review blog post, Please Stop Complaining About How Busy You Are. It was a fun read and rang true for me - a lot of what the author writes about in the piece is what we all hear coming out of our own mouths and those of friends and colleagues. I thought about it again earlier this week when I was at the Work Life Congress 2013, put on by Working Mother Media in midtown Manhattan.

The first speaker was Cali Williams Yost - maybe some of you know her. She's a big name in the work/life balance arena, although she hates using that phrase. She's pioneered the phrase work/life fit. Which brings me back to over-busyness. During her talk, Yost pointed out that today, we live in a 24/7 working world, communicating about work around the clock. So, she argues, there really is no 'work' (which you used to do within certain hours) and then 'life' (after work), like there used to be. There's a combo - work + life. And that means making some adjustments about the way you spend your time, and how you prioritize.

"We are responsible for our careers in ways we were not before," she said (certainly true for me and anyone else doing their own thing). But "now the boundaries [between work and life] are down people have no idea what to do," said Yost, citing examples of people who claim they're so crazed they "can't even walk the dog". She urges us to try to think of all our responsibilities - at work and at home - as one big platter that must be picked at. "We have to re-frame all these to-dos and think of it as a buffet of possibilities." You can't eat every dish on the buffet, but you have to see all those responsibilities as deserving of attention regardless of whether they're home related (dog-walking, dentist-appointment-planning) or work-related (getting that spreadsheet done). She says attacking your to-do list this way isn't hard - it just requires making small tweaks to your everyday thinking and actions. 

Here are a few traits of people she called "naturals" at managing their work and life:

  • They keep work and personal together (see above).
  • The regularly reflect, and when they see a gap, something they're not doing, they take regular small steps to close it.
  • They collaborate, communicate, and coordinate (for instance, to a colleague, "I'd like to take Friday off - can you cover for me? I'll do the same for you another day.") 
  • They celebrate success - i.e. they focus on the stuff they do get done, rather than beating themselves up for the things that remain on their list.

Each attendee got a copy of Yost's book Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day. I haven't had time to delve into it yet.

Which probably means I should make it a priority.