Workplace Flexibility: The Key to Work-Family Balance?

Workplace flexibility is a key for working parents trying to balance work and family. Here are some questions that can help us assess the flexibility we have at work, and some ideas about how to leverage them.

a screencap of my recent HBR article
A screencap of my recent HBR article aimed at supervisors. What are its implications for us working dads? Keep reading to find out!

Last week, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review blog in which I advised well-intentioned supervisors on how to be more “family-friendly” while upholding performance standards. My advice was:

  1. Focus on What, Not How or When

  2. Get Better at Measuring Performance

  3. Delegate, Coach, and Let Your People Earn Trust

  4. Serve as a Work-Family Balance Role Model

The common thread for the first three items is allowing employees more flexibility in how, where and when they perform their jobs, while still maintaining high standards for what. Overall, I think it is sound advice for managers, and the piece was very well-received.

However, I largely write this blog to help my fellow working dads navigate work and family issues. So, what are the implications of this article for the working father?

The Families and Work Institute has been surveying people about work and family issues for the past two decades in their National Studies of the Changing Workforce. In this post, I’d like to share with you the questions they use in their surveys in terms of workplace flexibility and organizational support for balancing work and family roles. These questions may help you think through and assess how your workplace stacks up, and what barriers or supports you may face. Based on your assessment, you may be able to think about strategies to use available workplace flexibility and better balance work and family (or if you need to find a new place to work). Here are FWI’s three categories of questions:

The Families and Work Institute uses these questions in their research. FWI also provides great info and resources for employees and employers in improving work-life balance.
The Families and Work Institute uses these questions in their research. FWI also provides great info and resources for employees and employers in improving work-life balance.

Career Consequences for Attending to Family Needs

  1. There is an unwritten rule at my place of employment that you can’t take care of family needs on company time
  2. At my place of employment, employees who put their family or personal needs ahead of their jobs are not looked on favorably
  3. If you have problems managing your work and family responsibilities, the attitude at my place of employment is: “you made your bed, now lie in it!”
  4. At my place of employment, employees have to choose between advancing in their jobs or devoting attention to their family or personal lives

Obviously, “agree” answers here make balancing work and family much harder.

Supervisor Support for Work-Life Balance

  1. My supervisor is fair and doesn’t show favoritism in responding to employees’ personal or family needs
  2. My supervisor accommodates me when I have family or personal business to take care of- for example, medical appointments, meeting with child’s teacher, etc.
  3. My supervisor really cares about the effects that work demands have on my personal and family life
  4. My supervisor has expectations of my performance on the job that are realistic
  5. My supervisor is understanding when I talk about personal or family issues that affect my work
  6. I feel comfortable bringing up my personal or family issues with my supervisor

“Agree” answers here really help with balance.

Workplace Flexibility

  1. I have the freedom to decide what I do on my job
  2. It is basically my own responsibility to decide how my job gets done
  3. I have a lot of say about what happens on my job
  4. How easy is it for you to take time off during your workday to take care of personal or family matters

Again, “agree” answers here really help with balance.

In fact, I think these 4 questions are the most important. Because an overall workplace approach towards general flexibility is NOT specific to work-family, it lessens the resistance “old-school” managers and cultures may have for “soft stuff” issues. General flexibility is less likely to be seen as a “mommy track women’s issue” as opposed to a serious issue that affects us all- men and women alike, and there is likely to be less stigma attached to requesting flexibility when it is not specifically framed as a family issue. Finally, in my own research, I have found that general support for flexibility and autonomy is just as effective for helping fathers deal with work-family concerns as “work-family” culture.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to use the above questions to assess your workplace and supervisor, and then consider the implications this has for your various roles and responsibilities.

  • Perhaps you are more able to deal with family concerns than you originally thought?
  • Maybe you need to polish off your resume to find a better situation?
  • Maybe your organization is unsupportive, but you can work something out unofficially with your supervisor?
  • Maybe your answers to these questions influence how you negotiate for alternate work arrangements?
  • Other thoughts?

So, how do you feel about the flexibility and support you have at work? How does your employer stack up? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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