It's been a busy summer on my local online community for working parents, where work-life balance is a hot topic. First there was FaceBook COO Sheryl Sandberg's revelation that she leaves work at 5:30 P.M. every day to have dinner with her children (and then works from home from the minute they go to bed until the wee hours of the morning). Then Ann-Marie Slaughter's infamous Atlantic manifesto, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" touched a collective nerve within our group of over-extended, multi-tasking moms (and dads). And as of last week the posts were still flying about Yahoo's choice to hire six months pregnant, 37-year-old Marissa Mayer as the company's new CEO (and, more importantly, how many members of a round-the-clock nanny brigade she'll need in order to keep up her high-profile juggling act).
While my peers were busy debating the finer (and muddier) points of each new bit of media published in response to these women's choices, I was experiencing a working mom revelation of my own. And when I say "revelation," I mean it literally -- lately, I can't stop preaching the gospel (just ask my friends). And the best part is, this particular brand of enlightenment doesn't require a miracle. All it takes is an employer's trust and common sense.
For the past five months, I was employed as a project consultant by a large non-profit organization. During the interview process, I learned that my supervisor lived outside of the city and worked primarily from home and that her supervisor worked remotely from another city. They both spent a day or two each week in the national office, mainly for meetings. I, too, worked from home most days, a feature that, while not especially unusual for a consultant, was thrilling to someone who commuted for 10 years to a Midtown office.
It didn't take long to discover that my managers' remote working arrangements weren't at all anomalous, and that employees throughout the organization reside in, and work remotely from, cities and towns across the country. Some spend the majority of their time in the regional office closest to where they live, while others work from their home offices (or kitchen tables) just as I did. Most staff members travel now and then to meet with their colleagues face to face, but all meetings are scheduled with a call-in number and, frequently, a video chat option.
For a working parent, it's hard to overstate the benefits of being able to do your job from home even one day a week, let alone four or five. Not having to commute to the office means you can drop your kids off at school, pick up your dry cleaning and still have time to go over your presentation one more time before that 9 A.M. conference call. Avoiding the drive or train ride home means you can put in a full eight or nine hours of work and still make it to daycare on time, cook for and eat dinner with your children, and get everyone to bed at a reasonable hour without feeling like you're going to pass out -- or explode -- from exhaustion. When your home is your office, you can take your child to the dentist without missing a half-day's work, run your kids over to a friend's house if your babysitter cancels at the last minute and get your grocery shopping done while your colleagues are at lunch. And let's not forget the laundry.
Apparently, this organization's progressive approach to flexible working arrangements has been successful not just for its employees but for the non-profit itself, which has for several years in a row been listed among Fortune Magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work For. At all levels of the organization it is universally understood that those who work from home are as productive and engaged as their colleagues in the office, and no one views them as privileged or assumes they're slacking off. In fact, never have I experienced a workplace where employees were treated with more respect, given more autonomy, or so sincerely regarded as grown-ups who could be trusted to be responsible with their time -- which is ironic, when you consider that the "grown-ups" employed by this organization are largely in their 20's and early 30's.
Because working remotely is so commonplace and unexceptional at this organization, it's by far the most parent-friendly place I've ever worked. There is no stigma attached to working from home when a third of your coworkers do it. But perhaps it is because much of the staff is years away from even thinking of becoming parents that the idea of a flexible workplace has been so readily embraced. When people work remotely for a whole host of reasons, no one begrudges the ones who choose to do so in order to spend a few additional hours a day with their kids.
Unlike Sheryl Sandberg, Ann-Marie Slaughter or Marissa Mayer, the majority of working parents in this country don't have the luxury of attempting to "have it all" -- or opting not to. Instead, we wake up each day wondering how we're going to "do it all," because not working (or not taking care of our kids) simply isn't an option. There may not be a perfect solution to balancing the two full-time responsibilities of earning a living and raising children (even working from home creates its own set of stressors), but a professional environment that welcomes its employees to work remotely and has the systems in place to support them comes close enough for me.
Not all careers are well suited to flexible working arrangements -- a teacher can't exactly phone-in her algebra lesson from her kitchen table -- but document sharing applications, project management tools, video conferencing technology and good old email and instant messaging make it very possible -- even practical -- for those of us who spend the better part of our workdays in front of a computer. Until more companies learn to understand and embrace the benefits of flexible working arrangements rather than fearing that allowing employees to work remotely would reduce their productivity, "doing it all" will continue to be Sisyphusian feat for most of our nation's working parents. And unlike those fortunate enough to question the logic of "having it all," we have no choice but to keep pushing that boulder up the hill.
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