Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer stirred controversy by ditching the company’s telecommuting policy and requiring employees to report to the office. While many have criticized her decision because it disproportionately affects working mothers, others believe it may save the struggling tech company from obsolescence. To them, Mayer’s decision is justified if it will help Yahoo’s bottom line.
But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. The answer to this dilemma isn’t to ban flex time entirely; it’s reforming the system so that employees who work from home do so more effectively.
I recently attended WNYC Presents: How Technology is Changing the Way Women Work, an event that tackled this very issue. It also brought me full circle: in the early 90s, when I was working at Dow Jones, I wrote a telecommuting policy for my department for women wanting to work from home after giving birth. At the time, scarcely anyone else at the company had such an arrangement. So much has changed since then with the advent of technologies that enable employees to work remotely. And yet, so much remains the same: despite vast technological gains, the percentage of women in top positions is still small.
So how do we move forward and create flex policies that address how work is done and life is managed, while boosting a company’s bottom line? How do we create policies that support women and allow them to stay on course to make partner or the executive suite when they are caring for young children?
What may have started as a solution to a women’s issue can better harness everyone’s talents. The data overwhelmingly shows that telecommuting and flex time can increase productivity, but sometimes the system breaks down, like it did at Yahoo and Best Buy, said Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit. and author or TWEAK IT: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day. There is a growing awareness that the model is broken, but we don’t yet know how to fix it, continued Yost. We also don’t know what “it” is. Is it an HR policy, program, benefit or technology? The one thing we do know is that whatever the new model is, it has to work for both the business and the employee.
The good news is that, thanks to high-profile women like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic, reporter, and Mayer, the issue is in the spotlight like never before. It’s been getting a lot of media attention, according to Marie Wilson founder of The White House Project and co-creator of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work. These women are reigniting a revolution. They are doing this in two ways: first, they’re changing the conversation, and second, they’re focusing people’s attention on what matters – where, how and when people come to work.
“This is a game changer,” said Wilson. As an advocate of women’s issues for more than 30 years, she should know.
You might think women entrepreneurs would be trying to solve this problem in their companies, but, according to Jessica Lawrence, the executive director of NY Tech Meetup, they are no more likely than men to take on this challenge. You’d also think startups, which are blank slates when it comes to employee policies, would be developing fresh approaches to work flex systems. Unfortunately, by the time they have staff and need to put policies in place, they’re too overloaded with running the business to put this high on the to-do list.
Many women put their career on hold when they have children, especially when the kids are five or younger, said Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s New Tech City. Lack of affordable childcare (and eldercare – a looming issue) is part of the problem.
We can’t forget that this isn’t just an issue for women at the middle and top of the company. It’s an issue at all levels. Some jobs, such as cleaning an office, can’t be done remotely. When these women miss a day of work, they don’t get paid, said Stacy-Marie Ishmael, a product manager at Percolate.
There is no one size fits all solution, but nearly two decades of experience tells us that it starts with a strong employee-employer partnership, said Yost. She continued with two tips:
Teach employees at every level how to appropriately capture flexibility to manage their unique work+life fit, day-to-day and at major life transitions. And show them how to collaborate, coordinate and communicate in a way that considers the needs of their colleagues and the business. This is a modern skill set that we all need, but most of us don’t have.
Position work flexibility as a core business strategy that adapts as the goals and objectives of the organization change. This means that flexibility is not a stand-alone program, policy or benefit. It is a process-based, solutions-oriented, ongoing conversation that becomes part of your organization’s cultural DNA and enables you to hire, engage and retain the best people, service global customers, manage resources and save money.
Women need to know that as they’re climbing to the top, they’ll have the kind of working conditions that will support them now and through their life transitions. If your company has found a solution or if you have a suggestion as to what might work, please share it.