Avoiding the “Parent Trap”

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As the daughter of a working mother, who raised children while working full-time in an executive role in the 1980s and early 1990s, I watched a strong woman successfully juggling work and home life. Fortunately, companies today have come a long way from where they were 30 years ago in offering parents the flexibility they need to meet the responsibilities of their jobs without sacrificing parenting duties. The only down side to this progress is the same flexibility often is not given to those without children.

An article in The New York Times a few weeks ago gives insight into the new friction that’s developed between parents in the workplace, who are increasingly given flexibility to meet the needs and preferences of their lifestyle, and non-parents who may have many interests and duties in their personal lives, but who haven’t enjoyed the same flexibility.

As a person whose “child” is 11 pounds with fur, glow-in-the-dark eyes, and claws (i.e., a tabby cat), I feel the frustration of those who would like the same flexibility of colleagues who are parents. It’s not that my cat has special parenting needs that I’m struggling with. It’s that I have needs that I’d like greater leeway to fulfill. While a parent may need to leave, or log off, early to pick a child up from a pandemic-pod soccer game, I might like to end work early to spend time researching literary journals where I could submit my short stories, or I might like to work very late and then take the following day to travel somewhere without it counting against my days off.

The passions childless people pursue are important to their sense of self and fulfillment. An employee who doesn’t have a full sense of self, and feels frustrated, probably won’t do his or her best work. Giving those without children the same flexibility as parents in how their work time gets put in can aid a company in unexpected ways. An artistic employee who uses the added flexibility to pursue creative writing, painting, or another art can bring that same heightened sense of creativity to his or her work. New ideas and impassioned work performance are generated by art and creative endeavors—and can do wonders for new product development and the generation of marketing ideas, among other work-related tasks.

The time parents give to their families is important both to their spouses and children, and community, as well. Stronger families collectively mean a stronger community. Employees without children who want to use flexible work scheduling to participate in in charitable/volunteer work also help to strengthen a community. In making it easier for those employees to do that charity work, your company is fulfilling its corporate social responsibility mission (if it has one). You’re also marketing your company. Those employees out in the community doing good works are ambassadors for your company, giving it a good name.

For both parents and those with no children, providing the flexibility and understanding to attend to life beyond work makes for better employees because it frees up the employees’ minds. The worst is that feeling when one eye is on the clock and the other eye is on your computer, wondering if you can finish your project in time to do whatever it is you have obligated yourself to do outside of work. Employees with one eye on the clock, and thinking about what they might have to miss, are not employee who can devote their full resources to serving your customers.

The question is how to offer flexibility to all employees equally while keeping your work groups on task and on time to finish all projects. The solution is careful, advance planning. In exchange for the flexibility, employees have to help managers ensure continuous work coverage by sharing schedules as far in advance as possible—understanding that the unexpected sometimes will arise, and that their employer will be compassionate in helping them accommodate those surprise needs. Flexible workplace scheduling is at its best when it’s a true partnership between employees and managers, so everyone gets what they need with no missed opportunities or missed cherished moments in anyone’s personal life.

Do you offer both parents and non-parents flexible work scheduling? What tips can you offer other companies on how to effectively do this?