Category Archives: Work/life balance

The phrase “having it all” rears its ugly head again

The phrase ‘having it all’,  the famous tagline coined by the original Superwoman  Shirley Conran,  has plagued us since 1975 which truthfully started all this nonsense. I had hoped it had disappeared for ever.   It conned women into believing that we could ‘have it all’  when it actually means ‘doing  it all’ or ‘managing it all’.  It has now reared its ugly head to probably do the same level of disservice to women everywhere, as it did first time round.

Another high-profile  writer has  caused a storm. Anne-Marie Slaughter was the  first woman director of policy planning at the State Department  and in ” a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan.” She has stepped down for family reasons which has precipitated a flow of unprecedented angst on behalf of ” women”.  In the Atlantic July/August “Women  still can’t have it all”   Ms Slaughter basically reiterates the  many truisms that most talent management specialists, as well as both women and men everywhere,  have been saying for years when dealing with the challenges of the 21st century workplace.

Important issues
There is no doubt that a highly visible woman publically targeting the key issues  both men and women face in their careers today is beneficial.   But sweeping, emotive, headline- grabbing generalisations from women of privilege do other women everywhere a disservice, not just in the upper echelons of  U.S. government administration. This headline is being picked up and syndicated globally to become a stand- alone #trending news item. 

What is “having it all” anyway? Should  Ms Slaughter’s headline become a defining slogan for all women?  I don’t think so. But sadly, it probably will be applied to all women,  all over the world, just as Conran’s did before her.

Out dated business models
Corporate business models are currently generally based on two factors:  a fully functional  nuclear family which in many societies is significantly reduced  and there being a distinct divide between  domestic (usually childcare) and revenue generating responsibilities, with one partner today tending to assume point roles on each side of that divide,  women focusing on childcare and men on revenue generating.  This model which exists to various degrees in different parts of the world is outmoded and impacts both men and women equally:

  •  Global economies are dealing with skill set shortages, declining birth rates and aging populations. We have essentially created a cultural conundrum. Economically we need women to have children.  We cannot support an aging population with an insufficient economically productive base. 60% of graduates are now female,  those skills are under utilised with developed economies filling key gaps with migrant men.
  • A presence  rather than result focused business culture in today’s hi-tech,  super- communication age is also out dated.  Organisations can be effectively managed without all personnel being in the same place, 24/7/52
  • A macho work culture where ” pulling all-nighters“, working 15 hour days and not taking time off at weekends and vacations is glorified and seen as a “good thing”,  rather than acknowledged as increasing the incidence of risk for error and being potentially damaging to both physical and mental health.
  • Men and women are both refusing to relocate for family reasons and have been for some time,  as any search specialist will tell you: spousal professions, housing costs,  education, single parent status and child and elder care are the 5 reasons most often quoted to me.

Extreme commuting
The extreme weekly commute from Trenton to Washington Ms Slaughter was undertaking seemed to be at the root of the issues  and anxiety she was facing. She makes no mention of why her husband and family didn’t move with her.  Many families relocate with children aged 12 and 14.  I would imagine the job of her husband  Andrew Moravcsik ,   who “supports ” her career as a Princeton Professor was a criterion. Perhaps it wasn’t feasible that he move to Washington. Perhaps he didn’t want to.  But an increasing number of men are re-locating to support their wives career progression.

Nor do we know what emergencies caused her to rush home  mid-week and why her husband was unable to handle them.  As Conran famously quipped  “you don’t need  a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist

Children –  a corporate inconvenience
Fathers in the workplace tend to be viewed more highly,  not just  above women, but also above men without children. So although we hear about the “Daddy Factor” where men are perceived positively for family involvement, most say that if this manifests itself in a substantial time commitment, then that perception would rapidly shift to become career suicide.  For our businesses to survive and to maximise the potential of both men and women in the work place, we cannot continue to relegate child care to the level of corporate inconvenience.

Any re-location specialist would have suggested that this arrangement whether for a man or woman, was potentially fraught with difficulties for all  involved, without significant workplace concessions.  Astonishingly,  this seemed not to be part of any sign-on package.  Although men who work away from their homes and families putting in punishing hours, might appear to do so more willingly, they are not unscathed,  reporting significant damage to their relationships and health and are afterwards filled with regret.

Wanting too much
Ms Slaughter’s regular job is as University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University where she  says  ” I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book”

By most people’s standards male or female, she already had it all. The suggestion  that she didn’t, creates a benchmark for inadequacy.  Did she simply want too much and have unrealistic expectations?

But above all  letting the mantras and experience of  famous,  well placed, individual women, whether Conran or Slaughter become global catch phrases for all women is high risk.  This is damaging to the men and women who would, and do, make  entirely different choices. They will inevitably be tarred as flight risks by that same stereotyping brush when applying for senior positions.

What does ” having it all ”  mean for you?

Extreme commuting! Why more of us are becoming Super Commuters

Limited local opportunities, expanded job markets and better value housing further from city centres are prompting more and more people to undertake longer commutes. Factoring in the career of a spouse or partner, slumps in housing markets making it difficult to sell or rent property,  as well as issues impacting kid’s educations, commuting rapidly becomes the most viable option in a range of other poorer choices.

Typical commutes 
Whether by plane, car, train or any other form of transport commuting is consistently listed as one of the bug bears of modern life.  Recent research in Sweden from Erica Sandhow at Umeå University,  on the impact of commuting,  suggests that 45 minutes could be considered a long commute. However, in the US a typical commute would be 50 minutes  while the British commuter spends 200 hours a year getting to work. Although there are a number of benefits from an increased number of career opportunities,  there are also significant downsides, with Sandhow suggesting that couples engaged in commutes longer than 45 minutes are 40% more likely to get divorced.

International commuting
Just the mildest of enquiries in my social circle produced the feeling that long distance commuting is more commonplace than these stats would suggest. In fact most believed that average commutes are taking increasingly longer as congestion is most towns is rising and 45 minutes elapsed time door to desk  was actually on the light side.

Yet many choose to commute not into their local city,  but internationally.

During a recent trip out of Malpensa airport I found myself in conversation with an Italian gentleman, Fabio, who was negotiating the security line with all the frequent flier finesse of George Clooney in “Up in the Air”. He works in international business development for an Italian conglomerate and was headed, not the 25 minutes typical Italian commute down the road, but 700 kms back home to Brussels.  Fabio was quick to let me know why he has decided to live apart from his family Monday to Friday.

Tough decisions
When I was offered a senior role back in Italy 3 years ago, it was a tough decision. On the one hand I had a great promotion but on the other I also had to factor in my wife’s career. She is British and an E.U. lobbyist, so needs to be Brussels based, as well as my children’s education. They are 16, 14 and 10 – so not great for the older ones to move. We speak English at home and the kids go to Belgian schools so they only have conversational Italian. So as I travelled 80% of my week  at that time anyway – the logical solution was to find a pied à terre Monday to Thursday in Milan and commute between Belgium and Italy“.

I have been in that situation myself twice when my ex-husband commuted internationally, in the days before cheap flights and speedy boarding. It’s not easy. Fabio continued ” When I’m not on the road I can work from home but obviously I need to be in Milan a couple of days a week at least. Technology helps and I’m lucky that my General Manager is a results orientated rather than presence orientated manager, but when you run a team being visible and available is important.”

Downsides
So what are the downsides as if I didn’t know already. “When flights are delayed or cancelled – that’s a hassle. My wife struggles sometimes dealing with my 16 year old son on her own and feels isolated. It means if she needs to travel for her own work we have complex childcare arrangements as we don’t have family in Belgium. Hikes in fares means that it’s high cost too. But overall it’s the best decision for our family

 Women super commuters
Erica Sandhow’s findings show that extended commutes primarily benefit the careers of men and also contribute to polarised gender stereotyping with women assuming a  greater share of domestic responsibilities in the absence of the men, while their partners become the defacto more significant salary earner. I can certainly testify to that.

If a high number of super commuters are men, what about women?

I spoke to Hannah who commutes between Paris and Amsterdam, leaving 2 children on Sunday evening or Monday morning,  with her husband Markus until Friday night.  “Yes it’s stressful but you get used to it. I find that I have to separate my work and personal life, but as the main salary earner in the family, I have to pay the mortgage and the bills. I am 16 years younger than my husband and will have to work for another 18 years at least.  I miss my kids probably more than they miss me and have some sad moments when I can’t make an event or something is going on in their lives which I can’t be there for.  My husband wishes I had more time, especially if I ever have to work at the weekend” 

At the same time, it is reported that those fewer women who do commute long distances gain new career opportunities and higher salaries – so there are some benefits.

But are they worth it?

So how long would you commute to work?

A great divide: planned parenthood and corporate planning

Corporate plans in place for a terrorist attack or natural disaster, but not maternity leave

Stereotypical thinking
I have just taken a flight across Europe. For 2 hours and 20 minutes straight, a new-born baby screamed without taking a breath the entire trip. The parent (male) and steward (male) did their level best to soothe the poor mite – but to no avail. It was a totally natural scene and possibly apart from being thankful it wasn’t their child, no one on that aeroplane gave the matter a second thought and especially not the gender of the 2 care givers

Perpetuating stereotypes
Which made me think of the Forbes Power Women List which came out last week. I’m not a fan and generally believe it leans towards bull rather than buzz, although I will admit this year’s list is an improvement on 2010, despite Christine Lagarde only coming in at #9. I also think perhaps somewhat contentiously that it promotes stereotypical thinking, just as much and perhaps more so, as it tries to debunk it.

A vital statistic that stood out for me in this year’s promotional roll call, in that slightly breathless, condescending, incredulous, ” didn’t they do well” tone, is that 88% of the women on the list have children. They are mothers. What’s particularly interesting about this information, is that it is even mentioned. I assume most of the Forbes powerful men list are fathers. Does anyone ever comment about that? Exactly!

Planned parenthood
One of the greatest historical changes to impact the lives of couples and women in particular in recent times (perhaps ever) in the developed world, is the wide availability of sophisticated birth control and contraception.The Economist (December 31, 1999) called oral contraceptives ” the greatest science and technology advance in the twentieth century

This has given both women and men (let’s not forget these are not immaculate conceptions) in developed economies, the opportunity to plan with the military precision of a space mission, not just the number of children they have, but also the timing of each pregnancy. Diets are adjusted, alcohol intake modified, exercise increased, temperatures taken, ovulation cycles monitored, sperm counts checked, baby rooms prepared, ante natal classes attended, showers held, mother and baby classes subscribed to. Books are bought, family are alerted, dad-to-be helps with all the heavy breathing, romper suits arrive by the dozen. Buggies, bouncers and baby chairs are ordered. Names are chosen, christenings or similar naming ceremonies are planned. Plan Bs hover in the background , with frozen eggs and sperm on hand just in case mother nature doesn’t oblige.

Strategic planning
So it would seem, notwithstanding the odd surprise, that having a baby has to be one of the most orderly and thought out processes that many men and women undertake in their lives. So I ask myself (and you too!) why does the planning seem to stop there? If employees are planning their families, why can organisations not plan to the same degree? Instead the careers of women in their 30s becomes a major elephant in the sitting room, that people hope will amble away on its own. And women do – in their droves.

Female workforce
Janine is a Client Services Director for a well-known financial services company based near Brighton, UK. She manages a team of 120, of which 90 are women. 80% of that number are between the ages 18 and 40. “ If all my team became pregnant at the same time, I’d have a problem!” she told me smiling. “As their manager I’m not allowed to ask my employees what their plans or intentions are with regard to having a family. Their supervisors are close to their staff in an informal way and have ideas about who we would move where and to cover which gaps and skill sets. But there is no official succession planning policy to cover maternity leave, although we do have an emergency plan in the event of a terrorist attack or other natural disaster! ”

Terrorist threat
Now I’m sure there could well be any number of subversive, underground, terrorist cells plotting to target financial organisations near Brighton, but I wonder how these threats, including a meteorological catastrophe, would stack up against the likelihood of any of those female staff becoming pregnant. There is a plan to cope with both of the former, but not the latter. Does that strike anyone as a little incongruous? I also find it frustrating than women are not expected to plan beyond the start of their maternity leave and although having a baby is discombobulating on many levels, it doesn’t close down brain functionality completely. They are having a baby, not a lobotomy.

The father factor
A Fatherhood Study carried out by Boston College tells us “ According to a study by the National Study of the Changing Workforce, for the first time since 1992, young women and young men do not differ in terms of their desire for jobs with greater responsibility (Galinsky, Aumann, & Bond, 2008). As a result, young women may be less prone to be the “accommodating spouse” in two-career couples, placing their career aspirations second to that of their male spouses”.

In fact the study also suggests that men also have different expectations. “Their wives are likely to be at least as well if not better educated, just as ambitious as they are, and make more money than they do. More importantly, these men feel that being a father is not about being a hands-off economic provider

Cultural changes
It would seem that although the expectations of both men and women are changing, organisations are not adapting fast enough to the cultural shifts in the societies around them. Economies need to counteract a declining birth rate and stimulate economic growth. The economy of the euro zone for example has been predicted to grow 16 per cent if women were in formal employment as much as men. Both men and women are looking for better work/life balance, not just women, and the business model for corporate culture, which creates a gender divide needs to be re-examined rather than emulated.

Lists such as the Forbes list with messages which portray women with successful careers as mothers are actually perpetuating stereotypical thinking rather than knocking it on the head.

Men get married and are fathers too.

70 or bust? No! Bring forward workplace changes

How old will you be when you finally retire?

Why wait until 2040 to implement workplace changes?

I seem to be receiving lots of invitations to retirement parties recently. A number of my friends and associates are heading off into the sun or sunset with a variety of fabulous plans: sailing around the Mediterranean to the Baltic, travelling around the world, spending time in summer homes, learning new sports, going back to university, volunteering, spending time with their families and taking up new hobbies. Some simply wanting to potter around in their gardens.

One thing they all have in common was that they are well under the age of 65.  So in some ways it was quite a contrast to see the cover of last week’s Economist ” Pensions: 70 or Bust,” staring out at me from a news stand, suggesting by 2040 for economic reasons, the retirement age will need to be extended to age 70.

Changing retirement age
65 has been considered by many as an aspirational average retirement age and in a number of countries is considered the default age. However, many people like my friends, take steps to retire earlier and it has been quite common for people to retire at 60, or even younger. Recently, particularly since the recession, there have been calls to scrap the default retirement age to allow those who would like (or need) to work longer, to do so. I have come across many who either wish to, or have been forced to, re-enter the workplace as property values and pension pots nose-dived. But in the future individuals may actually be obliged to work those additional years before they will be entitled to any company or state benefits – if they will even exist then at all.

70 or bust
The Economist suggests in its lead issue last week that by 2040, the retirement age in Europe will have to be increased to the age of 70 years. Since 1971, the average life expectancy rate in the advanced countries has risen by 4 – 5 years, and forecasts suggest that until 2050 it will grow by additional three years. People living longer and retiring earlier is not a problem per se , but forecasted labour shortages because of declining birth rates will not allow this.

The article also suggests that this birthrate reduction means that ” in the US, there will be only 2.6 workers per pensioner in 2050, while in France, Germany and Italy – 1.9, 1.6 and 1.5 workers per pensioner, respectively. Countries are already intending to raise the retirement age: in the United States – to 67 years, in the UK – to 68 years” . However The Economist maintains that these measures don’t go far enough.

By raising the retirement age it argues that employees will receive more years at a higher income level, governments will of course profit from further tax revenue, and a later retirement should stimulate a growing economy. However if governments are requiring individuals to stay economically active longer than previously, it means that organisational and employees practises and attitudes will be obliged to accommodate this demographic shift.

Specifically:

  • Discrimination policies will need to be enforced particularly in the areas of recruitment and retraining. A 50-year-old candidate potentially will have 20 more years on the career clock.
  • Workers in jobs requiring certain physical skills and stamina will have to be reassigned to lighter roles if necessary.
  •  Older workers will require cross generational and new technological training.
  • Older employees quite often have spousal and elder care roles. Support will be required.
  •  Flexible work schedules may be required (reduced, compressed, extended work weeks, job sharing, part-time hours, unpaid vacations will all have to be options)
  • Home offices and remote working should be considered.
  •  Re-organization of work and the redesign of jobs could be desirable.
  • Health and wellness initiatives would be beneficial.

Commonalities
It also struck me that some of these proposed measures to support an aging workforce would also be useful to women, but not by 2040. But today. So if organisations are going to be required at some point to implement changes, why not pre-empt a crisis and bring those plans forward 29 years, before we’re all keeping our teeth in jars on our desks and needing ramps for our walkers. If many of those proposals were introduced earlier, they would perhaps stem the exodus of women out of the workforce at critical points in their careers, some of whom never return. Who knows, many might be tempted to have larger families – if managing a career and a modern family simply became easier for everyone.

Those who wish to work longer can do so and those who wish to retire earlier can head off in the direction of their choosing. Then perhaps then some of those gloomy pensioner support ratios might look a little healthier. Or is that too simple?

What do you think?

BYOC : Unexpected work/life bonus

Not everyone wants to be in a situation where their careers are their only or top priority. Men or women.

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.

Paternity leave
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.

Excessive demands
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?

BYOC
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?

Home and work: Balance or convergence?

Transplanting biz strategies into the home
The gender split of household duties and child care as well as a general work/ life balance, is one of the most talked about issues in any group of working women whether on-line or IRL. In a women’s online professional forum I have recently joined as a mentor, the issue is debated intensely, although with few solutions offered. Complaints abound: the lack of workplace flexibility, partner inflexibility, school runs, orthodontists appointments, parent teacher conferences, nanny, crèche and au pair issues

Earlier this year, I carried out a survey of Gen Y women and 54% indicated that they expected their partners to be fully engaged in household management and childcare, so with older generations letting go of the Superwoman myth, things should be improving. However currently many women are still assuming a greater share of domestic and childcare responsibilities.

Non – alpha males
Lucy Kellaway in an article in the FT.com Breaking the glass ceiling at home carried out an analysis of the partners of the top 50 Women in World Business. and decided that these women successful were in relationships with non-alpha males. “The biggest reason that alpha women don’t become CEOs is that they have made the common, yet fatal, error of marrying an alpha man” These non alpha males are seemingly happy to take a back seat and let their partner’s careers take priority.

I think however we need to bring some financial perspective into this discussion. Ms Rosenfeld’s husband, may have given up his professional activity, but was it really to pick up a dish cloth or pair up the socks? With Ms Rosenfeld’s compensation package according to Forbes estimated to be at $26m I somewhat doubt it.

Genetic hardwiring
Lucy Kellaway’s theory, interesting though it is, also flies in the face of anthropological theories fielded by psychologists who tell us that women are genetically programmed to seek out the males who will help them produce the strongest children. In organisations, these men are commonly (but not always I agree) found near the top of the pyramid, profession or chosen field of activity. So it would suggest that ambitious women would tend to seek out like-minded men.

So how does the average non salary millionaire couple strike up the ideal balance, so that both can achieve their career goals? As the workplace becomes more flexible with dress down Friday’s, remote working, and with the possibility of employees being professionally contactable any time and anywhere, how are some couples and single parents dealing with this?

I spoke to a number of different women and it seemed that many were applying business techniques in the home. I heard the words procedure manuals, outsourcing, monthly meetings, responsibility allocation, forward planning.

Personal stories
Julia a senior business consultant told me ” I approached it almost in a business change management way. During my maternity leave , I identified key tasks, drew up ” job profiles ” for our domestic management, splitting chores and responsibilities according to our strengths and capabilities and what was logistically possible. We agreed to allocate a budget for a weekly cleaning company, because neither of us want to spend our very little free time doing the ironing. We decided that in the short-term to take the financial hit to make life easier and it was a small penalty to pay for both of us staying on our career paths“.

It was one of my greatest professional challenges combining work and home” Sarah now a CFO with an international pharmaceutical company ” the early years were very stressful. I had a number of au pairs and nanny’s which basically ate up my whole salary. At the time my husband wanted me to give up work and stay at home. Happily I didn’t because we are now divorced! As a single parent I allocate domestic responsibilities between my children. We all have the equivalent of job descriptions and ad hoc project management duties! I am lucky I can employ domestic support – a man before you ask!

Sally’s approach is much more indirect ” I cultivated some weaknesses. I made a mess of the laundry early in our relationship and it’s not a job that I’m now expected to do. I designed a procedure manual and made sure all the recipes we use are in there. Now my son aged 13 has his own copy and is quite a competent cook. I use online shopping and home delivery for almost everything and even outsource the ironing. I’m one of those crazy people who goes to the supermarket at midnight! “

Melissa and her partner have a monthly domestic meeting in the same way as they might in an office. “We check how we are doing. Manage our budget, make plans and allocate responsibilities. Now the kids are older they also join in for the last part. The minute we let the formal structure slide – chaos descends in no time! “

So as the gender split of domestic responsibilities becomes a workplace issue, some women are making a corporate style stamp on their home management. But is this a successful attempt to find balance or a destructive convergence as Stephen Covey suggests in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families,Home life has become more like an efficiently run but joyless workplace , while the actual workplace with its emphasis on empowerment and teamwork, is more like a family

What do you think?

The season of discontent: Singles speak out

Workplace flexibility for all
I spent some time in the autumn with a mixed group of younger high-powered professionals. What they all had in common was that they were either single, or if they were in relationships, they had no children. Young and fancy free – sounds fun right? Well ..no!

Chat moved on to their plans for Christmas. There was more than a little disgruntlement about the issue of how their offices would be staffed during the holiday season. Some companies now close completely, but others expect a level of skeleton manning. There seemed to be an unwritten expectation in all their organisations (cross sector) that when it came to allocating holidays there was a pecking order: employees with children would be given (or take) priority and then the singletons, would be expected to volunteer to organise cover amongst themselves.

These guys were not happy! Not just because they wanted to go skiing or the Maldives (although a few did) but because they had their own obligations and commitments which they considered to be equally important. In recent research I carried out on the priorities of Gen Y women, I saw that they were somewhat intolerant of workplace flexibility for women only and advocated flexibility for all.

Other obligations
David, a Consultant with a major audit company fumed “My parents are divorced and I need to make 2 family visits. It’s just not possible to do that in a few days. All I want to do is take my vacation time when I want it. Last year I provided weekend cover and worked late in December, so that the parents could go to school concerts and do Christmas things with their kids. Parents assume they are entitled to take the time off between Christmas and New Year. I will be expected to work. It’s not that I begrudge them flexi-time – but I think it should be offered to all

There are also many different types of care and domestic or family responsibilities. Susan is single in her early 50s and has strong obligations to look after her widowed mother, now in her mid 80s. Peter’s wife has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and requires additional support. They claim , that the fact that an individual has no children doesn’t mean their commitments are necessarily any less demanding. In a C.C.H. survey carried out in 2007 in relation to unscheduled absenteeism, more than 60% of unscheduled absence is related to non sickness reasons, resulting in huge costs to companies.

Responsibility to and for self
But what about the employee who has no responsibilities for others, but simply wants workplace flexibility to allow them to look after themselves? As working days and commutes become longer, technology now offers many options to facilitate that. Workplace stress also causes significant organisational and health issues, so shouldn’t employees be encouraged to give their own needs priority?

Madeleine was more direct and took a firmer view. “People with kids feel that their family status puts them into a special category. Having children is a lifestyle choice. Couples know what the issues are when they make the decision to have a family. My boss quite often asks me to cover for her when she has to leave early or work remotely to deal with childcare issues ( she has 4 kids) .I’m totally OK with that, but when I wanted to go to the gym in office hours, because fitness is a high priority for me and after a 12 hour day, I’m too tired, it was suggested that I go at lunchtime. Lunchtime is for eating! ”

Fun!
The irony might be that working Mums, the group which cries out for work place flexibility the hardest, would actually benefit if that perk became standard for all. Leanne Chase of Career Life Connection takes the matter one step further and suggests that with regard to workplace flexibility “ for it to be universal we need to place a whole lot less emphasis on “family” “women” “care-giving” and “children.”

Could it be the protests from the singletons who want to look after themselves, or simply take time off at the holidays to relax and have fun, with no obligations at all, which will make a difference?

What do you think?

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