Every October, National Work and Family Month gives me flashbacks.
When I became pregnant, I was a manager at a high-tech company. My job was at least fifty hours a week and, given a recent merger, would now include coast-to-coast travel. With my husband working crazy hours as a new associate at a law firm, we knew something had to give.
No problem, I’m a valued employee. I’ll just propose a part-time schedule for myself. So I did my homework and put together a proposal to go part-time based purely on business reasons. Doing my best to hide my queasy stomach, I flew to the East Coast and met with my new boss. I pointed out the advantages of having me part-time on the West Coast and hiring someone else part-time on the East Coast: lower travel costs, someone available in person in both locations, and the ability to hire two people with complementary skill sets and experience for the same money.
He listened but didn’t even read my nifty memo before he said, “Sorry, can’t do it.” His budget gave him a head count of a fixed number of bodies. Full-time or part-time, I counted as a body. So letting me have a part-time schedule meant he would lose half a body. Besides if he did this for me, the company would have to offer part-time as a benefit to everyone. My new boss was a really nice guy, but my options were clear to me.
A few weeks later, I announced both my pregnancy and my resignation.
My boss and I were both stopped in our tracks by a pair of assumptions common in many workplaces.
- The company’s budget and human resource policies were built around the assumption that all employees were the same – willing and able to work full-time their entire lives.
- Any request for flexibility was filtered through an assumption that work-life flexibility is a benefit or perk and, to be fair, any benefit had to be offered in exactly the same way to all.
Except both assumptions are false.
- Today more than ever, all employees are different. There are more women at work, more workers in non-traditional families, more generations at work, more workers caring for elderly relatives. And workers lives are constantly changing. New children arrive, decisions to go to school at night get made, elderly parents all of a sudden need care, a spouse gets a new job – or loses one.
- Work-life flexibility is an effective and necessary business strategy in today’s world, not a special employee perk. Work-life flexibility is a strategy that adapts to the business, to the jobs and to the employees.
National Work and Family Month offers an opportunity to step back and ask what if we let go of the old assumptions? What if my employer had?
What if my employer’s budget and payroll had included options for employees at full-time, three-quarter time and half-time? What if in recognition that workers lives are always changing, work-life conversations between manager and employee had been normal and regular occurrences? What if the company had already determined for each department and type of position which types of work-life flexibility produced mutual benefit for the work and those workers?
Maybe I wouldn’t have kept my pregnancy a secret.
Maybe my boss would have kept me on half-time, hired someone else half-time on the East Coast, saved money on travel and gained two skill sets for the price of one.
Maybe I would have stayed with a company where I’d spent years building relationships and gaining training and experience that made me more effective.
Maybe my boss would have saved the time and cost of replacing me.
And maybe I wouldn’t have flashbacks every October during National Work and Family Month.
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