The Rise of Workplace Flexibility
As we have seen, lack of flexibility is often the key reason women leave after they have children. In the past, companies often offered flexibility to selected employees, but mostly by exception and often under the radar. I spoke to one senior executive of a branding and marketing agency who worked for more than eleven years in a part-time capacity. She agreed to keep her arrangement a secret from clients at the request of her agency’s CEO. Why? Because he worried the clients would think they weren’t getting the most committed talent. Of course, it simply wasn’t true.
“Our clients had no idea I was working from home one day a week and that I was not available at all on Fridays. My team and I were able to structure our dynamic so that the clients never had to know. The work got done and we always delivered beyond the client’s expectations,” the woman told me.
I was completely surprised to learn of a friend from college who had arranged a similar work structure. I had admired her career in the luxury goods business from afar, marveling at how she “did it all,” only to recently learn she did it by working three days a week and pretending to work five.
The senior team, of course, knew she wasn’t working on two of those days, but they led the staff to believe she was working from another office and, occasionally, from home. She maintained the ruse by keeping up with email while on the playground with her kids.
“It wasn’t a perfect situation, but it gave me the flexibility I needed,” she told me. “I felt lucky they were willing to work with me.”
She was. I spoke to numerous women who had these “special” arrangements. And while these customized arrangements might have been great for the individual woman, they do nothing for the greater good. First, this kind of exceptionalism can create discontent amongst other workers. The colleagues of these individuals aren’t fools. They know something is up. Inevitably, the coworkers begin to wonder why person X has this special arrangement and they don’t. In the end, the company may retain this one employee but often loses a number of others in the process either through disgruntled attrition or disengagement.
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Additionally, if we hide these solutions, women (and men) won’t realize there are options. They may leave the workplace rather than try to negotiate a situation that works for them and for the company. Again, good talent goes to waste.
Smart companies, like online media start-up Medium, are recognizing that being transparent about their work-life integration solutions can actually create more loyalty, not less. When Jean Hsu, a software engineer, was getting ready to take a leave for the birth of her second child, she approached her boss, Dan Pupius, the head of engineering at Medium, to discuss her return strategy. Jean knew she wanted time to ease back into the work world, but she wanted to be sure she would still be able to be of value to her boss and the team
This was not new territory for Jean and the engineering team As the first female engineer at Medium and, de facto, the first to get pregnant, she negotiated a three-day-week transition period after the birth of her first child. But Jean felt conflicted because she knew, as an individual contributor, this schedule had sometimes led to bottlenecks in the workflow. This time around, she and Dan decided it made more sense for Jean to move into an engineering management role where her work would be focused less on coding and more on guiding other engineers to accomplish their work.
After a twenty-week fully paid maternity leave, Jean returned to work but only two days a week. This flexible schedule was created with the entire engineering team’s blessing and support. Jean hasn’t had to hide her flexible schedule because at Medium they’ve baked work-life integration into their company’s DNA.
In the decade to come, workplace flexibility is going to be the single biggest change in how we get things done. Why? Not because it’s the “right thing to do” but because it’s good for business. Companies need good talent and they are finally understanding that the way to recruit and retain good talent is by offering flexible work solutions—not just for women and parents, but across the board. In the end, it creates a culture of deep engagement and loyalty. As Jean Hsu told me, “Medium is the gold standard for how great companies treat their employees. Why would I want to be anywhere else?”
In the decade to come, workplace flexibility is going to be the single biggest change in how we get things done. Why? Not because it’s the “right thing to do” but because it’s good for business.