How Managers Can Be Fair About Flexibility for Parents and Non-Parents Alike

April 27, 2018 Joan C. Williams

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Bias against parents — and especially mothers — has been well documented. We call it the “Maternal Wall,” and we’ve been studying it for years, researching how women who have always been successful at work sometimes find their competence questioned when they take maternity leave or ask for a flexible work schedule. We know now that this bias can affect fathers, too, when they seek even modest accommodations for caregiving. For example, a consultant in one study reported that he was harassed for taking two weeks of paternity leave — but applauded for taking a three-week vacation to an exotic locale. Parents, studies consistently show, face extra scrutiny.

But while the data is clear that parents are more likely to face bias at work, sometimes we also hear about a different problem: that people without children find that their managers are more understanding of working parents’ need for flexibility, while expecting childless or unmarried staff to pick up the slack because they “have no life.” Indeed, research has found that women without children work the longest hours of any group.

How can managers set and enforce flexibility policies that are fair to everyone?

Simple answer: if you give people time off work to run a marathon, you should give people time off work to take care of their sick kid. If you give people time off work because the nanny didn’t show up again, you should give people time off work because their grandmother is sick.

Though people’s reasons for needing flexibility at work may differ, the principles for managing that flexibility are the same.

Here are some guidelines that managers can follow to be fair to parents and non-parents alike:

In general, more-flexible schedules work better for everyone. Flexible hours benefit both parents and non-parents, but in different ways. For parents with very young children, their work schedule can be tied to the baby’s sleep schedule. Parents with older kids may need to work around inflexible school or activity schedules. This helps parents be more productive with the time they have, and helps them balance their work and lives easier. 

Non-parents also use flexible working hours to be more productive. Some people do their best work from 7-9am, while non-morning people hit their stride at 10am. Workers with long commutes might try to shift their schedules to spend less time sitting in traffic, or work from home on certain days. Some people may have clients who are in different time zones, and it might make more sense for them to be online when those key accounts are most active.

What kinds of flexibility are feasible will depend on the workplace and the job. Obviously, a cashier cannot telecommute and a trial lawyer can’t get home like clockwork every day at 3 p.m. But a cashier can job share, and a lawyer can telecommute or take chunks of time off once the case has settled. Given the broad array of flexible work options, from flex-time (control over when you work) to remote work to job sharing (where two people seamlessly spilt a single job), managers can typically offer a variety of options to accommodate different workers’ needs.

If you have a work-from-home policy, it should be reason-neutral. It’s generally not a good idea to have to judge different peoples’ “reasons” for working from home. This leads to uncomfortable territory: does sick baby trump dying grandparent? Instead, when people work from home, just have them say “I’m working from home.” Don’t make people explain why.

Exceptions might be when there is a reason for an employee to be in the office (like an in-person meeting), but something comes up at the last minute, or if a particular employee has shown that they can’t meet their deadlines when they’re working remotely. In those cases, a manager may need more transparency with their employee about what’s going on.

Ensure that employees can actually use your flexible work policy. Don’t tell your employees that they can take advantage of your flexible policy and then expect them to be in the office from 9am to 6pm every day. Research by Deborah Rhode found that, in the legal profession, there is consistently a “huge gap between what [part-time] policies say on paper and what people feel free to use.” One of us (Joan) has been studying this phenomenon for years, specifically in a 2013 article with Mary Blair-Loy and Jennifer Berdahl titled, “The Flexibility Stigma: Work Devotion vs. Family Devotion.” The article found that while most workplaces allowed their employees some flexibility in working hours, the usage rates for employees were very low. The reason is because the use of flexibility policies was shown to result in negative work consequences for employees, such as wage penalties, lower performance evaluations, and fewer promotions.

Offer your employees flexible working hours, and then let them take advantage of the policy. Make sure you’re not signaling — either through subtle means (“Oh, you’re leaving already? Must be nice!”) or through more direct consequences (like poor performance evaluations) — that employees should actually be working “normal” hours.

Set clear boundaries & procedures for being in touch. Flexible schedules have many upsides, but they can also have downsides. They can make managers nervous — what if I really need to get in touch with my staff and I can’t? What if a work emergency happens? They can also make employees feel like they need to be “always on” and constantly checking email. To deal with this, managers need to put a system in place for when employees need to be immediately responsive.

Establish clear boundaries and procedures so employees know when they are expected to be available and when it’s okay for them to work their preferred hours. Make sure everyone is aware of, and signs onto, the rules.

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    For example, if your employee works 8am-4pm but you prefer to work 10am-6pm, you could tell the employee that when you email them after they are done working they are not expected to reply to it until the next day, unless you text them with something urgent. This will give both of you peace of mind: the employee can sign off and enjoy their life without having to worry whether they are missing important work updates from you, and you can shoot off emails to your employee and cross things off your to-do list without worrying about bugging them when they’re off work.

    This is also a good policy to use for weekends. Telling employees that they don’t need to respond to weekend emails unless they are specifically called can give your employees much-needed rest time and can also keep you assured that if something urgent comes up, you can get ahold of them.

    Establish trust with your employees and then trust them. When you allow your employees to manage their own schedules to best suit their strengths and lives, and when you also work a schedule that fits your life, sometimes you don’t work side-by-side every day. How do you ensure that they are working when they say they are working, that they’re not skiving off work and responsibilities, that they aren’t making up excuses or fake doctor’s appointments?

    Bottom line, you can’t. And you shouldn’t try to. One of the easiest ways for a comfortable workplace to become toxic is if there becomes a culture of trying to trap people in lies, checking up on people unexpectedly, or generally not trusting each other. There needs to be trust established between managers and employees and coworkers for a workplace to function. Think about it this way: even if your employee is sitting eight feet away from you, are you looking at their screen all day? Are you monitoring their every movement? No. But physical proximity can make us feel like we have a handle on what someone else is doing. Spending time and energy trying to monitor what your employee is doing every second of the day isn’t going to help anybody.

    Our recommendation is to build trust with your employees from the beginning, and then trust them. If you feel you can’t trust your employees to work out of your sight, that’s a performance problem. Treat it like one.

    Measure outcomes, not process. “Okay, I trust my employees, but I still need to know what they’re doing!”

    We get it. Our advice is to measure employees by the work that they produce, rather than the manner in which they produce it.

    It’s time to move away from rewarding the 80-hours-a-week employee just because he puts in the most “face time” at the office. This continued dedication to the “ideal worker” disadvantages parents and people with lives, and puts emphasis on a non-essential work function. Who cares who spends the most time at their desk? Maybe that person is just woefully inefficient. What you should be asking is: who does the best work? Who gets the most done? Whose projects are the most impeccable?

    Save your scrutiny for employees’ work products, not their whereabouts. This will help avoid toxic climates and will redirect employees’ energy away from looking busy and towards doing their actual job.

    Policies, policies, policies. You can manage your employees perfectly, but if your workplace doesn’t have policies in place to support them, you are opening a hornet’s nest. Important policies to have in your workplace:

    • Paid parental leave (for all parents!)
    • Paid sick days
    • Paid personal days
    • Paid bereavement days
    • Disability leave

    But don’t let your supportive policies die in the employee handbook. Encourage your employees to take advantage of them.

    In our office, people’s start times vary from 8am to 11am, their end times vary from 4pm to “when the baby wakes up.” When babies are sick, parents’ hours that day are “when the baby is sleeping,” and when people have doctor’s appointments, or have to wait around all day for Comcast, or have to be offline for an hour to deal with a family situation, we work around it. With a little bit of communication, offices can allow everyone to adjust their hours to fit their employees’ strengths, schedules, and accommodate their lives.

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