I recently found myself, somewhat unexpectedly spending rather more time than I would have liked, in the departure lounge of Fiumicino Airport, Rome. It’s a long story, one that doesn’t even matter and with everything going on in Syria, Libya and Japan, I’m not even going to make the mildest protest. But I have actually often found that some of my most interesting and informative connections are made during delays in travelling both business and personal. People who are usually too busy are happy to idle away the time with just about anyone. That day was no exception.
I became involved in a conversation with Thomas C and Brendan S, both routed via Rome for a connecting flight to Heathrow, on their way back from a Supply Chain conference, in a still desirable Middle East destination. At a guess they were both in their mid to late 30s. They actually both looked very alike, booted and suited as they were in the male executive uniform of dark grey suits, crisp white shirts and designer ties, which did eventually end up in their pockets. Both had young families and Tom’s wife was still on maternity leave, following the birth of their first child. That was pretty much where the similarities ended.
Tom, a middle level manager enjoys his job, but his wife is the hot-shot, lead salary earner, already tipped to make Managing Director level in an American Financial Services company. My ears pricked up. I was thrilled to hear this modern-day story! But alas there was a twist.
” We had always planned that when we had children I would reduce my hours to part time and Katie’s career would be the primary career. Her income potential far outstrips mine and she is passionate about what she does. But we are already experiencing difficulties. My company doesn’t want to give me flexi-time or part time hours, even though it’s quite standard to support women. They reckon this will open the floodgates from other men wanting reduced hours. My boss also took me to one side and told me it would be a damaging career move and I could limit my chance of involvement in any long term, high level projects.”
This anecdotal story is supported by a survey carried out by uSwitch of 1,000 men which showed that 41 per cent of men polled would be concerned to take paternity leave, citing fear of losing their jobs or having their career prospects reduced.
Not everyone wants to be in a situation where their careers are their only or top priority. Men or women. What would happen if flexible and part-time working were available to all? If a company is fearful that a large section of its workforce would down tools and apply for reduced hours, doesn’t that send a message that perhaps there is something amiss with their workplace culture? Are people being expected to work too hard and simply too long? But perhaps more significantly is there something wrong with our business models that requires people to work in this way, but also our cultures for endorsing these values?
This was in stark contrast to Brendan’s story. I would say ( am I allowed to?) that he would be described as a typical alpha career man, already at Director level, with mention made of private prep schools and exotic foreign holidays. His wife is a part time interior decorator running her business from home allowing her to focus on raising their family, as two of their children have special education needs. But Brendan also works mainly from home. His company has adopted what I recently learned is known as BYOC policy – bring your own computer. He is paid a monthly allowance for using his own hardware. He has a docking station in his company offices, where there are no assigned desks. What started as a drive to reduce IT infra-structure and real estate costs, has now turned into a work/life balance benefit, where company employees can work from anywhere at anytime. This is seemingly becoming an increasingly attractive business model.
Does this mean he is sneaking a quick look the PGA Masters instead of doing whatever supply chain people are supposed be doing I asked? ‘ Not one bit ” he told me. ” I don’t think the senior management intended to be progressive at the beginning. They wanted to reduce IT costs and office overheads. When I’m in the office the distractions are huge. Offices are inherently inefficient places. At home I am totally focused. If I’m travelling I can work completely normally. The technology on my own laptop is infinitely superior to anything my company could afford to buy at the moment. It means that I can self schedule and be there for school runs, medical appointments and so on. What is important is that I get things done – not how and when I do it..”
So ironically could it be economic and technological imperatives rather than altruism, that could facilitate a future workplace which is not driven by preconceived and stereotypical ideas based on gender?
What do you think?