Thursday, May 31, 2012
Achieving Work-Life Balance: It Is Easier and Harder Than You Think
The initial seed for this rant was planted by comments someone named Chris Fett made on Scalzi's follow up post to his "Lowest Difficulty Setting" post. You can go on over to the post and search on his name to find all his comments. The best I could tell, he was arguing that women have an advantage over men- perhaps are even oppressing men, it wasn't clear- because women "get" to be both involved parents and members of the workforce. Scalzi closed the thread before I could really clarify how, exactly, men are prevented from doing this, too. But perhaps that is for the best, because his comments had a distressing tendency to make my head explode.
But what has finally brought me to the keyboard is the discussion feMOMhist hosted about whether or not there is too much "mom talk" in academia. A commenter called rented life summed up the concern I have heard many times- both online and in real life- that women without kids (and, one presumes, men with and without kids!) would like the same flexibility in the workplace that working mothers want:
"Generally speaking, I want what the moms want--the flexibility for women to feel comfortable with their choices, to be able to balance work life and home life because that's what we deserve. But I'm often left out of the conversation--either because as a non-mom I can't possibly have the sense to have the right views, or because moms prefer to talk to other moms."
There are several of issues that she brings up in her comment. I'm going to focus only on the workplace flexibility aspect. That is purely for space/focus reasons, and not because the rest of her concerns aren't worthy of discussion. Maybe sometime I'll come back to discuss how surprisingly fraught I've found it to hang out in some "mixed" groups of parents and non-parents- but not tonight.
Now, I am far, far, FAR more sympathetic to the concerns rented life has raised than I am to Chris Fett's strange views. In fact, I agree with her. I argued in my Work-Life Balance for Everyone Manifesto that everyone deserves a life outside of work. "Work-life balance"should not be a working mother's issue, or even a working parent's issue. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we frame it like that, because it subtly supports the insidious stereotype that working mothers are somehow lesser employees. I think we should not only include women like rented life in our discussions about work-life balance, we should actively encourage their participation, and the participation of men.
But. There is a thread in common between Chris Fett's belief that women "get" to have some sort of work-life balance that men don't and some of the comments from non-parents who feel they don't "get" the same flexibility at work that parents do. (Which, I want to be clear, is not what rented life said- her comment just reminded me of many others I've heard. It was the catalyst for this rant, but not the underlying cause.) The thread that links these two sets of comments, at least in my mind, is the idea that working mothers are being "given" concessions that are unavailable to other people. And that just isn't true, at least not in my experience as a worker and as a boss.
Here is how I view the issue of workplace flexibility as a boss: I take people at their word about the hours they can work. I listen to what they tell me matters to them, and the boundaries they set between work and home, and I adjust my plans accordingly.
Obviously, I try to be fair without needing people to come talk to me and ask for accommodations. But what is fair? To me, it isn't a strict tit-for-tat sort of exchange. It is attempting to give each person what he or she needs and wants, and trying to make sure that when someone has to compromise on that, it isn't always the same someone. For one person, an 8 a.m. teleconference with our vendor in France is absolutely no problem, since he's in the office at that time anyway. For someone else, being in the office at that time more than doubles the time spent on his commute. Conversely, staying late might be a disaster for the first guy because he needs to take his son to football practice, but is no problem at all for the other guy, who prefers to keep a late schedule, anyway, to avoid traffic. A weekend upgrade might be no problem for one person this weekend- annoying, because it is never fun to work on the weekend, but nothing a little comp time can't fix. For someone else, it might mean missing the premier to that big summer movie he's been looking forward to for months, and which he planned to attend (in costume!) with a large group of his friends.
As a line manager and as a project manager, my job is to take in all of this information, mix in the promises we've made to our customers and other business-related concerns, and come up with a plan for getting our goals accomplished. As I said, this is my job, and I don't mind doing it. But I can't do it properly without all the information. The workplace is no place to do the equivalent of "if he loved me, he would just know." I have 10-15 people to think about. Maybe I'll "just know" your needs, maybe I won't. To be honest, I no longer aim for that level of clairvoyance. I just aim to only have to be told of a need once.
From the boss' standpoint, I'd far rather you come talk to me about something you think is unfair rather than seething silently and then quitting abruptly in the middle of a push towards a big release. Talk to me. Tell me your concerns and define your boundaries. You get bonus points if you come to me willing to help me find a solution, by telling me, for instance, that you can take that early teleconference, but since it will make you miss your morning yoga class, you'd like to sneak out for an hour at 2 p.m. for a different class.
I know that I am just one boss, and that there are other bosses out there who aren't so enlightened. But I have also never worked for a boss who didn't appreciate this sort of honesty. I have worked for 11 bosses since finishing my PhD (I just counted). I have worked for micromanagers and bosses so hands off that I could go weeks without seeing them. I have worked for other PhD scientists and for non-scientists whose education stopped at the bachelor's level. I have worked for men and women (although mostly men). I have worked for infamous workaholics and bosses who espoused the virtues of daily meditation. Every single one of them respected the boundaries I set, and no one ever made me feel like a schedule concern I raised was a problem.
As a worker, I have always had boundaries between my work life and my home life. They have certainly become more firmly defined now that I have kids, but workplace arrangements that accommodate these boundaries weren't just granted to me automatically when I came back from maternity leave. No one came up to me during my first week back and said that now that I was a mother, I could have more flexibility at work. In general, I have either asked for the arrangements I wanted or simply taken them, assuming that I could apologize later if needed.
The only workplace flexibility that I use that was just given to me is the ability to work from home, in the form of either a laptop or the ability to connect to my work computer via VPN, and this has been granted equally to everyone at every job I have ever held.
The only accommodation I received that is not available to people without kids was the partially paid disability and family leave that I took after the birth of each baby- and if you won't grant that new mothers should have some protected time off to recover from the birth, and that new parents should have some time to adjust to the new life for which they are responsible, well, then we probably don't have enough common ground to justify having a conversation on the topic of work-life balance. You should just click away now, leaving a nasty comment first if you must.
Here are the other "special" accommodations I have used since becoming a mother, and how I came to have them:
When I came back from my first maternity leave, I worked a 35 hour work week for several months. I got this because I asked my boss for it. It was granted contingent upon me keeping my program managers happy despite the reduced hours. And my pay was reduced accordingly, of course.
I have shifted my schedule. I work from approximately 8:15 to 4:30, and I usually take only a very short lunch break (maybe 10-15 minutes of aimless web surfing while I eat). I got this because I told my boss that this is the schedule I work. People are generally understanding, but I have to police the "early" leaving time myself, by declining invitations for later meetings and just getting up and leaving meetings that run late. And yes, I have done that, even when the meeting involves quite senior people. Now, some jobs have less flexible schedules than mine, but within the confines of the job requirements, this schedule flexibility is not contingent on my status as a mother.
When I took on an expanded role at my previous company, it required reporting to a board member who is well known in the industry for working insanely long hours and expecting similar work commitments from people who work with him. Before I accepted the role, I had a frank talk with him about my hours and the circumstances under which I would work "extra" hours. I kept my regular schedule, and my usual habit of only working extra hours as the work truly required it.
I occasionally run errands at lunch and I sometimes have to leave early to take the kids to the doctor, etc. When I do this, I catch up on work at home. As I mentioned above, the ability to work from home has just been a given at my jobs. The flexibility in hours is something I just take.
I may be forgetting something, but I think the general point is clear: the flexibility I have I either negotiated for or just took. There is absolutely nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same, whether they have kids or not. However, there are career risks associated with each accommodation. What if people viewed me as a less desirable project member when I had the reduced schedule? What if people think I am not a committed employee because I leave "early" (even though I also come in early)? Did my frank discussion of my hours make me seem more expendable when it was time for lay offs at my old company? What if people think I am slacking off because I leave for my kids' doctors appointments?
I have no evidence that any of this flexibility has had any negative impact on my career, but there is no way to know for certain. I suspect that I have not paid much, if any, penalty, for demanding flexibility because I also demand a high level of productivity from myself, and know how to get it in a "regular" work week. It probably helps that I figured that out before I had kids, and therefore had a reputation as a fairly productive person who "only" works a 40-45 work week before any stereotypes about working mothers came into play. I am also willing to give as much flexibility back to my job as I can without overstepping any of the boundaries I've set for myself- I will stay past 4:30 on occasion, particularly if I know about the need ahead of time. I will work on weekends when necessary. I suspect I have also just been lucky.
However, none of that really matters- my reasons for wanting the flexibility are important enough to me to justify the career risks that attaining that flexibility entailed. If you want the same flexibility, you can have it, kids or no, male or female. But you will also face the same risks. I have never seen any evidence that working mothers face fewer risks for insisting on workplace flexibility. Rather the opposite, in fact- there are studies showing that mothers pay a penalty in the workplace even when their work performance is the same as that of non-mothers.
Do I think that it is right that requesting and/or taking reasonable amounts of workplace flexibility to enable "work-life balance" involves taking a risk with your career? Not at all. As I said in my comment on feMOMhist's post:
"What I really want is for everyone to come together and work together to fix our work culture, which glorifies insane face time hours over productivity, even while time tracking studies consistently show very few people actually WORK that many hours, even if they are in the office. I want us to stop fighting parent vs. non-parent and just try to make the culture better."
I truly think that this idea that parents are somehow "getting" extra flexibility in the workplace stands in the way of that goal. If you don't have kids, and you think your colleagues with kids are getting more flexibility than you, stop and ask yourself whether you have made your wishes known. And then look carefully at the parents' arrangements, and ask yourself if you are willing to take the career risks those arrangements entail. "Work-life balance" doesn't just happen for parents. It is something we have to actively pursue. The good news, though, is that the methods required for pursuing it are fairly simple: figure out what you want and ask for it (or take it).
To my fellow working mothers, who might justifiably feel a little embattled on this issue, since we have been fighting for workplace flexibility that benefits everyone while also suffering from unfair stereotypes about our work ethic, I say: try to let that all go. If you are not embracing the efforts of your child-free colleagues to secure work-life balance, start doing so now. Include them in the conversations and don't dismiss their concerns because they are different from yours. You may think that your day care pick up is more important than a yoga class, but you don't really know. There was a time in my life (before kids, as it happens) when my weekly yoga class was all that kept my repetitive strain injury at bay. It was a crucial part of my plan to ensure that I could stay in my career. Trying to rank reasons for needing workplace flexibility is a game we all lose. Besides, the more that fathers and child-free people insist on flexibility, the less the stigma that will attach to it, the more normal it will seem, and the better we will all be.
To everyone else, I say: join us in this fight for a better workplace culture! Come on in, the water's- uh, well, the water is full of submerged hazards. But maybe if we all work together we can clear some of those out of the way.