It is 6:00 pm and your team is scrambling to meet an unexpected, early morning client deadline. As expected, a familiar scenario begins to play out – those who have children are excused first. A baseball game, dinner with their family, tucking their kids into bed, a music or drama concert … the list of potential family conflicts is predictable, well established and widely accepted. Beyond being justified, their reasons for leaving the team in the midst of a frantic client ‘fire drill’ elicit an emotional response. In a world that too often seems consumed by professional success at all costs, these grounded individuals are prioritizing their families. Without question, the team will be supportive and help them manage their competing priorities. And of course, every departure is always caveated with “I’ll be online later”.
I’ve seen this scenario play out again and again in my own professional life and in the working environments of my friends and colleagues. I’ve also witnessed the repercussions of this situation: those without families are not afforded the same flexibility; they work around the clock; they sacrifice their personal lives, relationships and passions and pursuits outside of work; they ultimately, feel tired, stressed and unfulfilled; they burn out. Childless individuals often express that their requests for flexibility are not as ‘worthy’ or don’t hold as much weight as those of their colleagues and teammates who have children. Intentional or not, the message from organizations is clear: Those with families are people. Those without are employees.
This common scenario is juxtaposed with the preferences, lifestyles and family structures of a generation that will account for 75% of the workforce by 2025. The reality is that fewer young people are getting married and of those that decide to get married, a large percentage marry later. A summary of the Pew Research Center Survey of Millennials (2014) states, “Singlehood sets Millennials apart from other generations”. When it comes to children, Stew Friedman’s recent book The Baby Bust (2013) highlights that, in comparison to 20 years ago, only half as many Wharton College grads plan to have children.
This year, Millennials, with their preferences for singlehood, delaying marriage and not having children, are projected to surpass Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. Given the numbers and trends, why is it that the lion’s share of flexibility policies and programs, both informal and formal, favor those with families?
The Work-Family Phenomenon
Even more disturbing is that there is an increased use of the term ‘work-family’. Since the 1990s, ‘work-family’ has increased in popularity, often used in lieu of ‘work-life’, as if the two terms are interchangeable. Many of the nation’s leading academic, research, and advisory institutions that address flexibility issues use the terms ‘work’ and ‘family’ to discuss issues of conflict, balance and integration. While some may argue for a broader definition of ‘family’, you only have to Google ‘family’ to realize that the traditional definition of family has stood strong throughout time: “A group consisting of parents and children living together in a household”. In contrast, a recent article in Harvard Business Review (2015) stated: “Millennials strive for work-life balance, but this tends to mean work-me balance, not work-family balance”.
As a result of this disconnect, the use of term ‘work-family’ has alienated Millennials. Do those individuals without nuclear ‘families’ not deal with pressures? The U.S. has been labeled the ‘overworked’ nation, with less restrictions on working hours and less vacation and leave policy parameters than most other nations. Are employees working in this environment without families not also struggling to manage ‘conflict’, find the illusive (and much debated) ‘balance’ and seek the more recent phenomenon of ‘integration’? Why is the ‘work’ and ‘family’ movement dominating the discussion of flexibility, while alienating an increasingly important workforce segment?
- Consider the situation of a 34-year-old, single woman who is a consultant, traveling away from home Monday through Thursday of every week. She wants to prioritize finding a partner but isn’t in her home city enough to go out, meet people and nurture relationships when they start. She may need a local project to help her network within her home location and increase her chance of meeting someone.
- What about the overweight and unhealthy employee who is seeking a physical and lifestyle change? His ability to achieve this personal goal will likely be dependent upon his ability to make it to the gym before it closes each evening.
- What about the employee who has night classes and needs to study to accomplish her part-time MBA?
- What about the employee who can’t have or has decided not to have children but still desires to get outside of her professional environment and volunteer with kids after work? Is her desire to coach inner city students not also important?
And what about all the other employees whose ability to find time for their relationships, social lives, communities, passions, interests and pursuits is essential to their overall wellbeing, happiness and ultimately performance at work? If organizations continue to err on the side of advantaging those with traditional families, they send the strong message that the priorities of those without families aren’t valued.
Flexibility Irrespective of Marital or Parental Status
In conclusion, I do not desire, in any way, to undermine the challenges that working parents with families face or call into question their needs for flexibility. Instead, I endeavor to challenge organizational leaders to identify any inherent, ‘family-friendly’ bias in their views and their flexibility practices, policies and programs.
I encourage Executives to remove value judgments from flexibility decisions, practices, policies and programs. All employees should be asked to reflect on their priorities: “Outside of your career, what is important to you?” These discussions can be integrated into project teams and talent management discussions. Employees (regardless of lifestyle preferences and family structures) should be given a platform to identify, articulate and prioritize what makes their lives fulfilling.
When it comes to flexibility, there is no perfect, one-size fits all solution – organizations and teams will need to find the method that makes the most sense for them, their industry, their clients, the structure of their work, their product and service delivery and their business overall. In all cases, customization will be key. In all cases, value judgments should be absent.
Employees can support this movement by encouraging their organizations to adopt flexibility practices, policies and programs that are inclusive of all individuals – regardless of marital or parental status.
Ultimately, we all need to be accountable for igniting change in today’s working world. Let us commit to examining any underlying biases in our reactions to and decisions regarding flexibility. Let us commit to not judging the value of someone else’s priorities.
To remain competitive in today’s marketplace, leading organizations need to adapt to the changing preferences and lifestyles of Millennials. For my generation, ‘judgment-free flexibility’ will, without a doubt, continue to be a critical factor in our decisions to join and are our decisions to stay with or leave organizations.
Will you join the movement? #JudgmentFreeFlexibility
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