Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Work-Life Balance for Everyone Manifesto (Another Rant Posted Elsewhere)

Since it worked so well last time I posted a rant that I had written as a comment elsewhere, I thought I'd do it again. This time, the rant was in response to a comment on a post about how society is not set up for working moms, on Ginger's Its Hard Being Perfect blog, which I found via RambleGinger's twitter feed (a different Ginger, by the way). The commenter, Nikki (who was quite polite, and I'm sure is a lovely person), brought up the old criticism that any accommodation/flexibility companies grant to working parents is unfair to their child-free employees.
Here is what I said:
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Nikki, I want to amplify on Ginger’s response about your friend who is pulling most of the afterschool duty. My perspective on this is two-fold: I am a working parent who has to manage the balance between work and home, and I am a manager who manages employees, some of whom are parents. I work in IT, so there are times when work has to be done during non-work hours.

I try to accommodate everyone’s schedule, and I expect my boss to do the same for me. We’re all professionals, and we can usually find a solution that gets the work done and works for everyone.

BTW, the scheduling issues I accommodate include the fact that I have one contractor who is an Orthodox Jew and therefore absolutely cannot work after sundown on Fridays. I mention this as an example of scheduling constraints that have nothing to do with kids.

BUT- I expect my employees to speak up for themselves. I try not to let anyone be a martyr, but in your friend’s situation- does her boss even know that she is unhappy with the situation? It is not exactly analagous, but I have some people who prefer to work odd hours.

I think a lot of the angst single people feel when they look at parents leaving “early” or what not is actually self-inflicted. No one handed me a “get out of work early” card when I had a baby. It is just that I now have other commitments that are important enough to make me speak up and say “no, I cannot stay for that 6 p.m. meeting. Sorry.”

It is not the parents’ fault that the child-free folks don’t feel as strongly about their spin class or whatever.

Now, if a boss is faced with two employees who both say they don’t want to accommodate an after hours meeting- and doesn’t find a way to rotate that duty or something, but instead always gives the parent the free pass? That is unfair. But I don’t think that is what is happening most of the time.

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I thought about this some more during my weekly run by the bay today (look at that! Work-life balance in action!).  I'm actually hugely sympathetic to the desires of people without kids to have work-life balance, too. I had a supervisor once who would tell the married men to go home on time during crunch times, because "their wives will yell at them" and my god, did that make me (at the time, a single woman) angry. I eventually stopped staying late, too- I just said I couldn't stay. And you know what? Nothing bad ever happened from that. But it was a horrible thing for that supervisor to do.

Perhaps because of that experience, or perhaps because I am a sane person with a modicum of empathy, I try to accommodate everyone's scheduling needs. In addition to the Orthodox Jew I mentioned in the original comment, I have also accommodated in recent memory: a developer who takes time off every year to go to Comic-Con (this is non-negotiable with him, regardless of project timelines), a colleague whose cat had to have emergency surgery, leaving me to prepare slides for an important presentation with almost no notice, and more opening nights of big movies than I care to count (what can I say? I work with geeks.)

The one thing that is harder with parents is unpredictability: as a parent, I can't predict when my kid is going to get sick and have to go home from day care. I also cant' respond as nimbly to last minute work requests. To this I say: that's life. Everyone should just deal with it. And by everyone I mean that both family and work have to deal with some surprises. My husband and I take turns leaving work unexpectedly when day care calls, and that way neither of us is always disappearing without warning. But on the other hand, if a really important last minute meeting comes up at work, I will try to work something out with my husband to make it possible for me to attend. I will not, however, tolerate this sort of thing becoming a standard practice. If someone starts having weekly emergency meetings, I stop making as much effort to attend. I've never had this come back to bite me, either- mostly, people are happy that the parents on the team are pushing back on that, because no one really wants to stay until 6 p.m. for an emergency meeting once a week.
Anyway, I think I can boil down my opinion on this topic to the following bullet points:
  • If you are a child-free person who feels like your schedule needs are not being accommodated at work: speak up. Force the issue. As I said in my original comment, no one just grants these accommodations to parents. We take them because we think our committments to our children are more important than acquiescing to a scheduling need at work. 
  • If you are a parent who does not respect the scheduling needs of your child-free peers: cut it out. Your child-free colleague's need to come in late one day so that she can go to early morning yoga is just as valid as your need to leave early so that you can pick up your kids from day care.
  • If you are a parent who is always the one who has to leave work for the kids: talk to your partner and work out a more equitable split. (I know, I know... sometimes this isn't possible. But usually, it is. My manifesto doesn't cover the edge cases.)
  • Everyone: work together to resolve scheduling conflicts. We're all adults. We all presumably care about our jobs. We can work things out.
  • If you are a boss who is giving priority to the needs of the parents over the needs of non-parents: cut it out. That's not fair. If there is an off hours work need that no one wants to cover, set up a rotation or something. Don't just decide that Molly has to do it every time because she has no kids. 
  • If you are a boss or project manager in charge of organizing things: actually organize things, so that there aren't a bunch of last minute emergencies. It is amazing how many emergencies are really just poor planning allowed to run on unchecked. 
  • If you are someone who has power to set company policy: make sure your employees can work from home. We'll use that flexibility to make sure our work gets done.
I think that about covers it. What would you add or subtract?

17 comments:

  1. Great post!

    I did get extra accommodations right after my son was born. BUT... I got ZERO maternity leave. I skipped a week of classes, and that's it. (Wasn't covered by FMLA because I hadn't worked there long enough.) But our older male profs have taken more time off and similar accommodations for recovering from a motorcycle accident, having a fall in the parking lot that resulted in surgery, botched eye surgery, heart related conditions and so on. Childbirth isn't the only temporary disability out there even though it's a very visible one.

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  2. My last full-time job was as a paralegal. The law firm I worked at was mid-sized, almost a hundred attorneys but a local law firm so all in one place. The support staff was 90% female and the atty's were 70% male. I always had male bosses. I, as far as anyone knew/admitted knowing, was a single female. I didn't discuss my personal life with my supervisors. One day I told my boss I was pregnant, I worked until my due date, taking leave to go to dr appts when necessary, took three months off and went back to the same job I had before. When Tate would get sick, it was always me that took time off to be home with him. No one at work gave me grief. My performance reviews weren't negatively impacted. I have no idea how different it would have been if I had been an atty at that time.

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  3. I'd add make the after/flex hours work you do visible. I work 8-4 to get to daycare on time, but then I check in when I get home to be on top of anything that comes up from 4-6. For a while I just did that quietly (if nothing was urgent I didn't hop on it), but then I started sending email during those hours to just keep people aware that I was, in fact, paying attention.

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  4. Another thought-- in our department, the parents get to their offices sometime around 7am and leave before 5pm. School starts so dang early. I'm actually in my office about an hour more than I was before preschool when I wandered in around 10am and left after 5pm. (Though I no longer come in on the weekend like I used to.)

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  5. Good point, @Shandra- but I think I'd actually add a bullet point:

    Everyone: judge productivity on actual productivity, not face time.

    @nicoleandmaggie- good point about the other uses of short term disability!

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  6. the milliner8:02 AM

    Totally agree with your manifesto. Especially this point:

    "If you are a child-free person who feels like your schedule needs are not being accommodated at work: speak up. Force the issue. As I said in my original comment, no one just grants these accommodations to parents. We take them because we think our commitments to our children are more important than acquiescing to a scheduling need at work."

    This is the talk I should have given to myself pre-kid. It was only in becoming a parent that I forced the issue, quite frankly because I didn't feel like there was any other option. That being said, it's easier to do it in the name of a kid rather than in the name of carving out a better life/work balance for yourself (not that it's right, just that it's the way things are viewed in general in NA).

    The only thing that is slightly off for me is equating going to a yoga class with parenting. Not that they are both not worthy things. But it's more that in addition to parenting being a choice, parents are raising the next generation of people who will take care of and make choices etc. for all of us (with or without children). I think it's more apt to compare accommodations for parenting to accommodations for taking care of a parent, etc...which I think are also important.

    But (another but!), I really do think that we'd all be better off reasonably accommodating everyone's needs to tailor their work life so that they can have a better work/life balance. I have no issue if someone want's to work a later schedule (or make up the time from home etc.) so they can go to a yoga class or whatever. As long as the work gets done, who cares how it's achieved. And people will be that much happier and productive for it. I've been pretty lucky to work in a company that for the most part wants you to be around between 10-4 and otherwise expects that you'll organize your schedule to get your work done. And on top, my previous boss was completely OK with me working from home when needed (or even just wanted). That has been amazing for being a parent of a young child.

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  7. I enjoyed reading more of your perspective. The problem is that half of corporate America doesn't have the same mindset as you! If they did I don't think we would have a problem. :) I wish supervisors would embrace the work from home movement more. I hate having to take a vacation day to tend to a sick child, when I really can be working at home while my child is sick on the couch.

    It's interesting how work-focused the U.S. is compared to other countries and I'm not sure why that is.

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  8. I was pretty horrified in chatting with a co-worker who was struggling to work out how she'd manage to ride her bike both to and from work without having to ride in the dark. Its less than an hours ride and its summer, so I can only assume that she's working 12 hour days every day. Wow!

    I think it sounds great to pipe up a bit more if you have things to do that you feel important, so many people pull the martyr card.

    This also used to happen when I went on conferences. No-one else went because they didnt ask, or negotiate to go on a conference, so I had no sympathy for them.

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  9. I don't think there is anything wrong with taking time out during the work week to handle personal life/non-work things. Especially in a work culture that thinks it's okay to spill over a 9-5 (8-6) schedule. I don't necessarily think evening/weekend dr office hours are the answer.The lack of available leave to take is a problem. I read the blog post about how it was inconvenient to have so many parenting related activities fall during the workday but - those things are coinciding with other people's work schedules, too. Why should a teacher have to hold evening conferences or orientations?

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  10. One thing that grates on me is that many of the comments (not here, but in general) from people without kids along the lines "it's not fair that parents get preferential treatment, where's mine?" reveal a deep distaste for children and the concept of having them in general. With all do respect, having kids is not the same as choosing to take up yoga. I would say choices where some living creature depends on you (children, aging parents, partner, even pets) are a different breed of choices than paragliding or whatever. Being responsible for someone other than yourself is profoundly human and should not be looked down upon or frowned upon by those who choose to or by circumstance have no one to be responsible for.

    That having been said, I like the post, especially the points about simply taking what you need: you need to leave early? Just say so and do. Everyone should be working on equality of work load distribution, but don't expect anyone to be advocate for you if you won't do it yourself. And excellent points about making your after-hours work visible, as well as not expecting everyone's schedule (such as dentists' or teachers) to kowtow to that of corporate America, with evening and weekend schedules.

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  11. @the milliner- see, I think we don't want to get into the game of rating reasons for wanting work flexibility. Either you allow it or you don't. If you allow it, people get to take it for whatever reason they deem important. And no one else gets to judge whether or not their reason is important enough- unless they start abusing privileges.

    That sidesteps the whole debate about whether or not non-parents benefit from the work of parents in raising the next generation, which I think is important, because that debate can get heated and silly.

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  12. Here's the thing that makes me the craziest about haring childfree folks complain about how "unfair" it is when parents get accommodated - it sounds an awful lot like the rhetoric we heard after the economic collapse about public sector employees. The whole, we're suffering so THEY should suffer too! argument. Is that what society has come to? How about, instead, working out a system where nobody suffers? Maybe? Working parents are at the vanguard (or could be) of an important movement to force employers to treat employees like full human beings with lives and problems. There's no reason why many situations can't be accommodated, like in your (Cloud's) examples both child and non-child. People have problems - accidents, illnesses, depressions, familial collapses, pet surgeries, what have you, and even every day things like doctor's appointments. I get it that there are some jobs that have to happen during certain hours, and some jobs where there isn't much flexibility, but in many jobs there's space for a LOT more. So instead of blaming parents for "getting" something extra (which of course is laughable since working mothers "get" very little except lower pay and little respect or hope of professional advancement), let's all join together in a social justice movement for increased flex time and compassion for each other. And universal health care! Ok, so now you know, I'm a closet socialist.

    And I know this is a controversial thing to say, but caregivers have responsibilities that non-caregivers don't. Now, I understand that non-caregivers are absolutely entitled to fairness in the workplace and their own work-life balance. Yet care-giving another human being is more important than spin class. It's not "optional", it's not a "choice". You have kids (or an ill partner or parent), they occasionally have needs that trump everything else. That should be something recognized by everybody.
    (Basically, what @themilliner said!)

    (I'm always deeply troubled by the insinuation that mothers don't deserve any accommodations because they have "chosen" to have children. Therefore, the pay cuts, the lack of advancement, the discrimination, etc are all "okay" because women signed on for this when they had kids.)

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  13. @GMP, @Erin, @the milliner- I basically agree about how caring for another living being is fundamentally more important than spin class. But I know that there are many people who strongly disagree. Ultimately, I think that having that argument is a distraction. If you set up work places to allow a reasonable amount of flexibility, people can figure out how to meet their caring responsibilities without needing anything "extra". I've said before- the best work/life balance and flexibility I've ever had was at a company where that flexibility was used by everyone, and not seen as something that working parents used.

    The exceptions, of course, are seriously ill dependents and other unusual "edge cases". In those cases, the employee may need to negotiate some extra flexibility with his or her employer. But for the average needs of parents- I think those can be covered by generally making our work places more flexible.

    And of course, I left off the standard privilege disclaimer- this all gets a lot harder for hourly employees and people with jobs that have no component that can be done from home.

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  14. Great post as usual, and I'm loving the many thoughtful points being made here.

    "If you are a boss who is giving priority to the needs of the parents over the needs of non-parents: cut it out. That's not fair..."

    Well, that's certainly true if parental status is the ONLY yardstick a mgr is using to make those decisions. I think the reality in a lot of American workplaces is that 1) most people are shitty mgrs, and 2) as a result, their employees too often have to lie and exaggerate in order to be excused from work without penalty. And let's be honest: "My kid has a dr's appt" or "My dog is having surgery" are far more socially-acceptable reasons than "I have to be at yoga class."

    Funny (sad) though, apart from my DH, I've never once heard of any father I know needing to leave work early or take a day off to care for his sick child - so AMEN to what @Cloud said about co-parents needing to find an equitable split on those duties. Too often the working mom does everydamnthing. Effin' patriarchy.

    But back to notions of relative "fairness" to the childless - part of me is thinking we need to bear in mind here that it's like mama always said, "Life isn't fair!" because very few people work in actual meritocracies. My favorite bosses are the ones who give the extra perks to the best producers, and who also have accurate metrics to ascertain who exactly their top producers are vs. the employees who are ok at the work but are quite good at playing the face time game.

    What I'm about to say will dovetail nicely with @Cloud's most recent rant about the male $125k-salary hater: people need to own their choices (to the extent they actually have meaningful choice, of course [insert @Cloud's aforementioned privilege disclaimer here please]). **It is an active choice not to cultivate one's negotiation skills in the workplace.** (I know, people often accuse women in the aggregate of not negotiating as well as they could...don't shoot the messenger.) People like the original @Nikki's childless friend who mistakenly believe their coworkers with kids are the problem need to check out one of several good books available at pretty much any local library that will help them gain the skills to be able to effectively ask for the things they need at work. My hands down favorite for women is Lois P. Frankel's "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office." (crappy title, AWESOME book.)

    Let me give you a flavor of some of these techniques from a review of Frankel's book that I found online: "Frankel points out that women are socialized to believe they should get proper approvals before taking a step---any step. But men learn when to ask and when to just go ahead. Men learn how to apply the rubric "It's easier to get forgiveness than to get permission." Ms. Frankel pointes out that children, not adults, ask for permission to do perfectly rational things. I had never considered how detrimental to my career the habit of asking permission had been. But I decided to give Ms. Frankel's suggestions a try. I went to my boss and said, "I cannot come in on Friday." My boss looked nonplussed. I was petrified, but proud. I had done it. I had Made A Statement instead of Seeking Approval. And he didn't demur. He said, "Okay," and we went on with the day."

    @nicoleandmaggie - You got no maternity leave, at all? Holy crap!

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  15. Oftentimes I think the resentment comes from younger child-less people because they haven't yet experienced illness or caregiving needs (either for their own aging parents or kids). Many will have kids later in life and even those who don't will benefit from more work-life balance.

    It's the same with insurance. I know many younger people who lament paying high deductibles or universl healthcare costs because they never use it. Well, at some point in your 40+ year working life, you'll probably need to use it!

    I guess we are too individualistic of a society to see or care about group benefits.

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  16. I don't see why the *reason* for wanting a flex schedule is important. IMO, it's not anyone's business. If daycare calls me and tell me I need to pick up my kid, I send mail to my manager saying I need to leave early to attend to a personal issue, and will be online later.

    I think people in general volunteer too much info. I don't think your manager needs to know all that stuff. Just - are you working or not, if not, when will you be available again?

    I'm someone who worked part-time before having kids, because I wanted more time to myself. Now I work part-time again because I can spend more time with my daughter that way. But I would be annoyed if my employer was making a judgment about my *reason*. What they should be looking at is: am I getting my work done, period.

    Also, don't be afraid to propose what you want even if it sounds crazy. That's how I ended up w/ a part time schedule after mat leave with my ideal of 2 days in the office only and the rest from home.

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  17. Paul Howell10:16 PM

    Most of the professionals are sharing their work life balance; so that, other people are also following and implementing things in their professional life. We can understand the boundaries of personal life, but every time, people are facing problems in their personal life due to their busy work schedule. So, it is quite better to learn some basic tips on work-life balance from different professional and experienced people. I would like to follow this above story and hope to get better results in life.
    Work Balance

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