Posts Tagged “flexibility”

Why “Fit” Matters, and Makes a Big, Meaningful Difference

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This post is part of a blog carnival taking place through Labor Day on to celebrate the publication of The Custom-Fit Workplace: Choose When, Where and How to Work and Boost Your Bottom Line, by Joan Blades and Nanette Fondas (Jossey Bass).

In 1995, I graduated from business school and began working for Families and Work Institute developing and implementing work+life strategies.   I often joke that I’m probably the first, and last, student to walk the halls of Columbia Business School publicly professing the desire to become a work+life strategy consultant.

But my previous experience as a line manager at a bank had opened my eyes to an irrefutable truth:  it’s a strategic imperative to help employees flexibly manage the way work fits into their lives day-to-day and at major career and personal transitions.  It’s not just a nice thing to do.  Unfortunately, my conviction was often greeted with a confused, “what?”  Remember, this was 1995.

Undaunted, I began my work at FWI with gusto.   But two seemingly insurmountable roadblocks continued to stymie progress:

  1. Every time we talked to leaders about “balance,” they’d visibly physically shutdown.  Heads bobbed and eyes glazed over.  And, they weren’t alone.
  2. Individuals were paralyzed by the frustration of never achieving “balance.”  No matter how many programs were offered or flexible work arrangement policies were written, “I don’t have balance” or “I’m out of balance.”

“Balance” wasn’t working.  So, I tried to redefine it.  For leaders, I’d patiently explain, “Balance doesn’t necessarily mean working less.  It means working better, smarter, more flexibly.”  For individuals, I’d point out, “There’s no right answer or 50-50 split between work and life.”  But to no avail, the reactions were the same.   Something had to change.  But what?  A tiny word, “fit.”

#1 Reason Work+Life Fit* Matters and Makes a Difference: Everyone at all levels becomes part of the same conversation.  They recognize the uniqueness of their particular “fit” and the business benefits of greater workplace flexibility.

Finally, one day, a senior executive saw my “balance” struggle and took pity.  He candidly confessed,

“Look, Cali, no matter what you say every time I hear ‘balance’ all I hear is ‘work less.’  Plus, I don’t have any kind of balance.  In my job, I never will.”

Suddenly, I heard myself say,

Exactly, you have a work+life fit that works for you and your circumstances, and everyone in this organization has a unique work+life fit that’s going to change many times over the course of their careers.  The trick is to create a flexible culture and operating model that allows all of these different work+life fit realities to coexist in a way that meets the needs of the individual and the business.”

That’s all it took.  Miraculously, for the first time, a line leader not only listened to the importance of giving employees greater flexibility, but he was engaged.  “Actually, you’re right, “he said, “I do have a work+life fit,” and he began to share aspects of his personal life that he consistently tries to fit into his busy job.  He also understood that his circumstances (e.g. plenty of financial resources, stay-at-home spouse) were different from many others in the organization.

Simply adding “fit” replaced disinterested defensiveness with understanding recognition.   The result was a more productive conversation about work-strategies that would create a more flexible culture and way of operating.  Roadblock removed.

#2 Reason Work+Life Fit Matters and Makes a Difference: Individuals stop focusing on what they don’t have, “balance,” to see the work+life “fit” they could have. (Click here for more)

(Fast Company) Change the Game: Add Aging to the Parent-Centric Work+Life Debate

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The other day, as I read Sharon Meers’ (author of Getting to 50/50) clear and compelling article in The Washington Post, “How Joe Biden Can Help Working Parents,” I had two conflicting reactions:

  1. First was, “Go Sharon!” because she did a great job laying out the powerful data that support why we all benefit from helping parents manage their work and life. And she honestly addressed the common roadblocks that get in the way. But then …
  2. I thought “Are we still having this same conversation 15 years later?!” You see, I could dig back through my files and probably find a similar article making many of the same arguments from 1990.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the power of parenthood alone to catalyze a radical change in the way business, individuals and government approach work and life is limited.

No matter how many smart people, like Meers or Vice President Biden, join in the conversation, no matter how many pieces of research objectively state the need and benefits, we just can’t seem to move the needle.

We need a game changer. We need something that breaks us out of the rut we’ve been stuck in for 20 years and takes the debate to the next level. We need an issue that drives home the reality that finding new and better work+life strategies is not optional, or a “nice thing to do in good times.”

We need … to include the aging population. Why? It’s one of the greatest challenges both those who are aging and their caregivers (and, in turn, employers) are going to face in terms of the sheer number of people affected. Turns out, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Last week in The New York Times, David Brooks ranked “the aging population” first in the list of “deep fundamental problems” we are facing as a county.

As the parent of two beautiful children and as someone who can recite the bottom line benefits of work+life strategies in her sleep, am I frustrated that the argument for supporting parents hasn’t been enough to make more meaningful change happen? Yes, very.

But I’m also a realist who knows that at the end of the day change happens when people understand the “WIFM” or what’s-in-it-for-me. Adding the challenges of an aging population to the argument expands the base of people who “get it” and who are, therefore, invested in seeking solutions.

Here are some of the reasons I believe the work+life debate will finally get teeth if we add the challenges of aging. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well: (Click here for more)

How Employers Can Love (or Stop Hating) Maternity Leaves

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Last week, The New York Times included a quote from me in a great article, “Taking a Positive Approach to an Employee’s Maternity Leave.” Because this is an important topic that many employers struggle with, here are a couple of the key points from the article I wanted to highlight and expand upon:

Of all of the inevitable work+life realities a workforce will experience, maternity should be the least feared.   Unlike illness, accidents, eldercare or spouse relocation, you can plan for it in advance.

Every small business owner should take note of how effectively and proactively the leaders in the article addressed the work+life issues of their employees.  Unfortunately, this is still unusual.  From my experience, most employers refuse to acknowledge and build into their day-to-day operating model contingencies for dealing with the intersections between work and other parts of life even though they are inevitable.  Everyone has a personal life.  Everyone.  Not just women who become mothers.

I’m always baffled by the panic of these same in-denial business owners every time someone becomes pregnant, takes care of a sick parent, has a heart attack, or stays home because of their child’s snow day.  By facing the reality that work+life conflict is a business issue, they’d create a culture that encouraged an open, ongoing, problem-solving dialogue about how to flexibly manage and adapt.  Everything would run so much more smoothly.

Whereas eldercare, illness, accidents, swine flu and snowstorms are usually unexpected, in most cases maternity gives you months to plan!  As the article shows, companies benefit from an open dialogue even if a new mother decides not to come back to work or returns on a part-time basis.  And it’s important to note that new mothers aren’t the only ones who may choose not to come back to work or who would be helped by a phased return after a work+life challenge.  People with elder care responsibilities, a long illness or accident can also benefit.

Prepare employees with the skills and tools to create a solution-oriented plan.

The article does a good job emphasizing the need for employees to start the conversation by thinking through an initial solution (for a contrasting example of what can go very wrong when an owner/manager tries to figure out the right answer for a pregnant employee, click here).

But knowing how to create and present a well thought out plan is a skill set.  Most employees need to be shown “how.”

A step-by-step process for developing a win-win flexibility plan is outlined in my book “Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You” and is a great place to start (excerpted in the Work+Life Fit in 5 Days blog series).  In fact one of the reasons I wrote the book five years ago was to give small business owners a resource to help their employees create win-win flexible work+life fit solutions.

A one-size-fits-all, across-the-board “policy” related to how maternity or any other work+life reality will be addressed doesn’t work.  BUT, it is a good idea to have a consistent process in place to which everyone has equal access.

This consistent process should outline the unique circumstances of an individual employee’s job and life that they should consider to determine the solution that will work for them personally and for the business.  Even though the outcomes will vary, a clear process maintains consistency by virtue of the fact that everyone had access to the same approach and parameters.   Again, check out the work+life fit process in my book to get started.

What do you think?  How do we get more companies of all sizes to come out of denial and face the fact that work+life realities are just part of their day-to-day operating reality that they need to plan for?  And how do we get them to embrace an ongoing, process-based, solution-oriented flexible response?

Relaunch Fast Company Blog–New Work+Life Flex Normal

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Last year an economic bomb detonated and laid to waste the rules and institutions that have guided our decisions related to work, life and business for generations.  Shell-shocked and disoriented, we’re starting to emerge slowly from the rubble wondering not only “What happened?” but “What’s next?   Welcome to the New Work+Life Flex Normal blog.

As the dust settles, it’s clear greater flexibility in work, life, career and business is here to stay.  Before the recession, a few fraying threads connected us to a work+life reality that was rapidly becoming obsolete for more than a decade. The downturn severed them:

  • Lifetime, stable employment with set hours, a clear career path and a consistent, always increasing pay check became a relic for workers at every level in every industry.
  • Traditional operating models that were too rigid to respond nimbly and flexibly were dismantled by the rapid change inherent in the global economy.
  • Full-time care giving and complete retirement for extended periods became non-viable for many, if not most, people because of economic necessity and demographic shifts.

Before the recession, enough parts of the old rule book worked for enough people—even until the banks started failing—that we avoided the difficult task of fundamentally rethinking the way we manage work, life and business to match reality.  No longer.  It’s officially a new work+life flex normal.

Flexibility in how, when and where work is done, life is managed and business operates is a strategic imperative.  As I wrote in May, the question is no longer “if” flexibility, but how to expand the “why” behind flexibility and determine “how” to make it work for everyone. To that end, here some of the angles and implications we will ponder and discuss: (Click here for more)

Jack Welch is Right “There’s No Balance,” But His Reasoning Needs Updating

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As reported in The Wall Street Journal‘s The Juggle blog, Jack Welch was quoted at a recent SHRM conference as saying “There is no such thing as balance.”  While his comments set off a firestorm of response, fundamentally, I believe he is correct–there is no balance.   However, his explanation of “why” needs updating.

He’s right that we need to stop talking about “balance.”  The sooner we discontinue thinking that there’s a right answer or “balance,” the quicker we will see that every one of us has a different work+life fit at different times in our lives.  There isn’t one  way to make work and life fit together.  Only what works for us and the realities of our jobs.

But here’s where the “why” behind his argument needs to be updated:

Update #1: He, along with almost everyone else, is stuck in the land of  the “all or nothing / CEO or stay at home parent” which is not where most of us live: Unfortunately, Jack Welch and many of those responding to his comments online are still stuck in the all-or-nothing, all work-or-no work dichotomy. This  keeps us from seeing the many creative, flexible ways to manage our unique work+life fit that exist between the extreme all-work reality of a CEO like Jack Welch, or the no-work reality of a parent who chooses to leave the workforce for an extended period of time to care for their children.  That doesn’t mean work-primary CEOs or life-primary stay-at-home parents are wrong.  Their work+life fit choices work for them–but most of us live somewhere in the middle along that continuum.

Image how different this story would be if Jack Welch had responded to the question, “Look, I chose to become the CEO of GE therefore I had to give 100% of my time and attention to work.  That was my choice; however, that isn’t the only way of managing work and life if your goal isn’t to become the CEO of a multi-national company.”

Update #2: It isn’t just about moms and women. To be fair, Jack Welch was being interviewed at the SHRM conference by Claire Shipman who just wrote a book Womenomics, therefore, chances are the conversation was about women which is why he answered it in that context.  However, the fact of the matter is we need to stop talking about work+life issues as women’s issues.  In today’s economy, we all–men and women–need to strategically manage our individual work+life fit choices day-to-day and at major life and career transitions such as partnering, parenthood, elder care, and retirement.

Update #3:  It’s also about flexibly redefining success. Just as there’s no one right way to combine work and life, there is no longer one rigid, linear definition of success.  Welch did reference the fact that if you take a career break “you may be passed over for a promotion,” and “that doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice career.”  What he’s saying is there are many different ways to define success personally and professionally, at different times in our lives.  Yes, you may choose to pull into the slower lane from the fast lane when passed over for a promotion but that doesn’t mean later when your circumstances change you won’t raise your hand and pull back into the fast lane (as you define it).  Remember, Welch was a CEO; therefore, anything less than that would probably be a “nice” career to him, but a very successful career to everyone else.

Bottom line,  it’s work+life fit, not balance.  There is no right answer.  It’s not all-or-nothing, either be a  CEO or a stay at home parent.  There are countless flexible, work+life fit options in between which is where most of us live.  And that’s where we need to focus our discussion and problem-solving.  It’s not just women, it is all of us at all stages of our lives.  The sooner all of us, including Jack Welch, realize this, the faster we will begin to have a productive, up to date dialogue that moves us forward.

Thanks, Jack Welch, for keeping this important “there is no balance” debate on the radar screen.  What do you think?

(Update: Since writing this post, I’ve learned that Jack Welch is recovering from a very serious spinal infection.  My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family for a full recovery.)

White House May Not Be “Family Friendly,” But It Is Work+Life Fit Aware

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You could read the recent New York Times article,“’Family Friendly’ White House Is Less So for Aides,” one of two ways.  As a commentary on the disconnect between what the Obamas say about managing work and life in the White House and what is actually happening.  Or, and perhaps more accurately, as an innovative case study on the possibilities and limits of flexibly managing your work+life fit in a high-pressure organization.  Here’s what I think the article has to tell all of us:

Our language needs to catch up with our present-day work+life reality if we are to avoid misunderstandings. Part of the problem with the Obama Administration’s efforts is the language they are using.  “Family friendly,” and “balance” are outdated terms that aren’t used by most work life experts because we’ve learned that they don’t accurately describe reality.  Think about it, what exactly does “family-friendly” mean?  Does it mean mothers, or all parents?  Does it include people with eldercare responsibilities?  And what about people who consider their pets to be members of their family?  And what exactly does “friendly” look like?  What looks friendly to me might look very unfriendly to you.

It is much clearer to talk about a flexible work environment that allows people to manage their work and life in a way that meets their needs as well as the needs of the business.  Notice I didn’t say “balance.”  There is no balance, especially not in a global, 24/7 organization like the White House that’s dealing with a major recession and two wars.   So instead of saying the White House is “family-friendly,” President and Mrs. Obama could say, “we support giving people the flexibility they need to manage their important jobs with their responsibilities at home in the context of what it means to work in the White House.”

A leader can set the tone, but he or she can’t give us the answer because our realities are completely different. Kudos to the Obamas for setting the cultural tone related to work+life issues.  They freely talk about how they try to manage their work+life fit, which makes it okay for us all to discuss.  They encourage the use of laptops to support flexibility (only for parents so far, however, I would advise expanding to everyone as soon as possible), and they walk the talk in a way that works for them.  Unlike other aides and staff members, President Obama works from home when he is in the country which does allow him greater, spontaneous access to his family.

While others are still trying to figure out their fit, they report a number of “small wins” such as accompanying a daughter on a field trip, or seeing soccer games.  If I could give them all expert advice, it would be to keep focusing on those small, flexible, day-to-day victories.  They make a huge difference.

Some are making adjustments to accommodate realities of their high-powered jobs that can’t be changed.  In-laws and spouses are taking on more.  Additional support is being hired.  Babysitters are bringing babies to work for a visit.  It might not sound appealing to everyone, but all that matters is it works for them.

Admittedly, there are those that still have a way to go in terms of finding their White House work+life fit.  Nighttime school visits and sightseeing aren’t going to work long-term.  But, it’s only been seven months, so testing the waters is to be expected; however…

This is a big job with long hours and sometimes it isn’t going to work for everyone. As the article noted, these are “prestigious posts that offer a chance to make an impact and unparalleled access to the President at time of recession and war.”   And the work is never, ever going to be done.

These are smart people.  They knew what they were getting into. The United States Government is a global, always on, always changing entity that’s currently guiding a country under great stress. Not surprisingly, a couple of staff members have already decided that it wasn’t going to work and have resigned.  Maybe they have a child or parent with an unexpected special need.  Maybe their partner got a new job.  Or, maybe it just wasn’t what they wanted after all.  They tried and realized it wasn’t for them, which shouldn’t be an indictment of the entire effort.

While it might not be everyone’s definition of “family-friendly,” there’s no doubt that this White House is much more work+life fit aware and supportive than previous administrations.  Is it perfect?  No.  Will they need to keep innovating?  Of course.  A year ago, would we have seen so many male senior administration officials talking openly about their work+life fit challenges?  I don’t think so.  That’s progress to celebrate.

The Administration is trying to create a culture that gives everyone as much flexibility as possible to manage their fit.  But in the end, they all still work for the White House.  And for some, that’s a fit that’s just not going to work.

What do you think?  Do you feel the White House work-life efforts are hypocritical, or do you see them as helping us all make the flexible management of our individual work+life fit part of the day-to-day operating model?

Fast Company: As Recovery Simmers, Limit Lagging Layoffs with Flexible Downsizing

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Great news… 90% of economists in a recent survey by the National Association of Business Economics predicted the recession will over by the end of 2009!  But hold the champagne.  These same economists saw unemployment rising as high as 10.7% in the second quarter of 2010, plus:

Historically, jobs lag behind a recovery as employers wait until the last possible moment to ensure the rebound is sustained.  As a recent Hewitt Associates study of 518 HR leaders found, even though most believe an upturn will start by year-end, many are “contemplating additional cuts.”

In other words, we are not out of the woods in terms of layoffs; therefore, it’s a perfect time to revisit flexible downsizing strategies to minimize job cuts.  As I’ve pointed out for more than a year in numerous posts (20 Reasons to Promote Flexible Alternatives to Layoffs) , reduced schedules/salaries, furloughs, unpaid vacation, job sharing, sabbaticals, telecommuting and compressed workweeks allow companies to manage labor and operating costs without having to let as many people go (for specific examples check out the recently updated Downsizing Flexibility Champions Honor Roll).  If a recovery is starting to simmer, it makes even more sense to try to hang on to your people, rather than scrambling for talent when business begins to pick up.

According to a recent Watson Wyatt survey, U.S. employers increased their use of reduced workweeks and mandatory furloughs; however, as with any innovative approach to tackling a problem, there are challenges to the wisdom of these flexible alternatives.

Concern #1:  Employees won’t go for it.
When I started writing about flexible downsizing to reduce job cuts in early 2008, the first response was, “Sounds good, but employees won’t go for it.”  So, I decided to find out by including questions in our nationally-representative 2009 Work+Life Fit Reality Check survey of full-time employees conducted by Opinion Research Corp at the end of March (+/- 4% margin of error).

We found that 9 out 10 full-time employees said they would be willing to accept a change or reduction in their schedule, or take a pay cut to avoid layoffs. Here’s the breakdown of the specific flexible downsizing options from which respondents could choose (there was no statistically significant difference between men and women):

78%     Four-day workweek, but the same amount of hours worked
59%     Add additional unpaid vacation days to the year
59%     Take one to two weeks unpaid leave, known as a furlough
48%     Share your job with another individual
47%     Reduced hours with reduced pay
41%     Work on a project basis as a contractor
41%     A pay cut, but the same amount of hours worked
31%     Take a month or more unpaid sabbatical
5%       None of these

Are people going to jump for joy when their schedule changes or if they make less money?  No, that’s unrealistic. But, I find there’s a pragmatic understanding that these are extraordinary times.  And most people, perhaps begrudgingly, will make trade-offs to keep their jobs. One conclusion from the data is that not everyone is interested in the same option.  Therefore, organizations might want to include a broad range of cost saving flexibility in any downsizing strategy and let managers and employees choose the options that work best for the individual and the business.

Concern #2:  You don’t save money and you will lose your top talent, therefore, the answer is to cut poor performers.

(Click here for more)

More Recession and Work+Life Fit: “Shift Happens”

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I was afraid this would happen. Last month in my Fast Company blog (Recession and Work+Life Fit), I noted that as we move into what increasingly seems like a recession, the response of many will most likely be for innovation related to flexibility and work+life fit to stop because:

“Unfortunately, too many leaders and organizations will default to a shortsighted fall back position, “Forget flexibility. People are just lucky to have jobs.”

Indeed, some leaders I’ve observed over the past month are having that reaction. I can understand it. Incorporating more flexibility into the way you operate your business, and manage your work+life fit even during the best of times can be scary because it’s new. Throw some bad economic forecasts onto that natural fear, and the next thing you know all innovation comes to a screeching halt as we hold on tighter to what we know. Even if what we know isn’t ultimately going to help us succeed.

But there is good news! As I’d hoped, “But…smart leaders and organizations…will continue to move forward integrating flexibility into the way they do business because they understand that there is no turning back.” And, thankfully, this is happening as well. In the last month, I’ve met a number of forward-thinking leaders who see flexibility as the way they need to do business and help people manage their work+life fit, especially in tougher economic times.

They may be in the minority, but these leaders understand that the trends requiring businesses to rethink how, when and where work is done, and individuals to more effectively manage their work and life aren’t going away. And, in fact, are only going to become more pronounced in our 24/7, high tech, global work reality. For a powerful presentation these trends and what they mean, check out a video that one of my clients brought to my attention last week called “Shift Happens”.

Wanting to circle-the-wagons is an understandable reaction to a recession, but let’s recognize and support the few who are trying to be innovative, flexible thought-leaders. Maybe their example will inspire their peers to do the same.

Do you have any examples of forward-thinking leaders who aren’t letting the recession stop them from rethinking how we all could work better, smarter and more flexibly manage our resources, talent, workflow and work+life fit?

(Check out my Fast Company Blog: Prediction–Meditation Becomes a Core Competency)