Flexible work and caregiving

I’ve been at a couple of meetings lately where there’s been discussion about flexible work  — both part-time work, and arrangements where people work full-time, but at flexible hours or locations.  And there’s some interesting conversations about whether this discussion should be framed as about caregiving or not.

The arguments against making this a conversation about caregiving are:

  • As long as flexible work is seen as a special privilege or accommodation for a limited population, it will be stigmatized — the mommy track.
  • Moreover, special privileges create resentment among those who don’t get them — this is where you hear the stories from childless workers who complain that their colleagues with kids race out the door at 5.30, and assume that they’re always available to work late.
  • If we truly believe that business should only care what you achieve, not when or where you do it, this should apply to everyone, regardless of the reason they desire flexibility.

Interestingly, I’ve heard that in the United Kingdom, where there’s a right to request flexible working conditions (although the employer is allowed to say no), employers think that it’s awkward that the right is limited to parents of young children — they’d prefer something broader.

The argument on the other side is that we shouldn’t be afraid to say that caregiving is important.  In the US, we often treat having children as a sort of expensive hobby — something that people do for their own pleasure, and that doesn’t incur any societal obligations.  If it takes up all their time and money, they should have known what they were getting into.  So, I have real misgivings about going down a path that says that it doesn’t matter whether you want time off to care for a child or a sick parent or to train for a triathlon, write a novel, or sleep off your hangover.

I see virtues to both arguments.  What do you think?  Both as to whether you think government should be neutral about caregiving, and which approach is more likely to succeed.

11 Responses to “Flexible work and caregiving”

  1. bj Says:

    I think the government should be neutral about care-giving, because of pretty much the arguments you suggest. However, I do think it’s possible to be non-neutral in the form of sick days — sick days are for being sick; flexibility that’s given for illness (of someone you have to care for) as well as for yourself can be neutrally judged, and verified, in the same way that sick days are (or could be). This type of policy couldn’t be used permanently (i.e. someone who is permanently in need of care) or for routine care (children), but it could be used to stay home when your child is sick, or in the hospital (or for another person you have to care for).
    All of these arrangements have significant cost, though, and I really fear the effect of imposing them on employers. I’ve always been struck by my German colleague’s perception of the situation in German, where the general perception is that the generous leave policies pretty much shut down the hiring of women of child-bearing age. They don’t say they’re not hiring you because of that, but everyone openly believes that they don’t hire women, and honestly, they do it because their bottom line is at stake; if they hire a woman who then leaves for 3 years, compared to hiring someone who doesn’t.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    I recognize that I live in a very different community than you. But here, when people talk about flexible work schedules, it 1> generally means they’re either self-employed or under-employed and 2> they do it so they can recreate. Ski, mtn bike, climb, etc. People w/o flexible schedules have mixed feelings about those who do, ranging from envy to disgust. Nearly everyone says it’s their ideal, and some day they’ll have a flexible job, too. Note however that ‘flexible’ often equates to ‘not lucrative’ and ‘not intellectually satisfying.’

  3. Rachel Says:

    I do think it matters what you are doing with the time. I think society as a whole has an interest in the wellbeing of children. Leaving work early to pick your child up from daycare is *not* the same as leaving work early to go on a bike ride. I think I would make it broad enough to include things like caring for a friend who has cancer, but impose some restrictions.
    On the other hand I think the neutral approach is more likely to be accepted. We are so individualistic, as a society, that arguments for the greater good don’t usually work.

  4. Robin Says:

    I work in the UK and my office is filled with women who work part time. The schools here close at 12 on Fridays so many women work part time for that reason. Plus there isn’t such a tradition of camps for kids here. So while we get a lot of vacation time (6 weeks) once you have kids a lot of the time is used for covering school vacations.
    It is interesting I have a friend from Denmark who has been living in the UK for the past few years and is returning to Denmark. She tells me that the child care there is excellent, cheap and covers after school time. As a result she said it is almost unheard of for anyone to work part time. She has one friend who has managed it and she said it was such a big deal that the head of the company was very aware of the situation. She loves working part time so even though child care is much more expensive here she will miss that. She likes the flexibility she gets and is hoping she can manage it some time soon in Denmark. She also said that in Sweden women get one year off maternity leave and then men can get one year off paternity leave, but they can’t overlap. This system is really interesting I think.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    I’ve worked with people who have gone (somewhat) part time for non care reasons – one went four days a week so she could do church work, and the other went to a nine day fortnight because he wanted to spend more time with his new wife (who was also on a nine day fortnight because her company worked that way). So in his case, there was absolutely no societal good involved.
    This was in a company where the need to find and keep good people in our field was such that it made sense to be flexible, and we were a consulting company, with overlapping projects, that meant that it wasn’t that hard to work around.
    At the time, we had few people working part time for caring reasons. It helped the carers that they weren’t stigmatised as the only people who wanted to be flexible, and it made others less resentful because they knew that they could do it too.
    We also had a rem structure that genuinely rewarded you for more (productive) time, so you knew that if you put in the extra hours that the carers didn’t want to do, you would get paid a bit extra for it.
    We still got resentment between the people who could be available for the nightmare crunch project, and those who outright refused – the money didn’t entirely compensate. But we regularly had the conversations, and it wasn’t just parents against the rest.
    However, a government mandated flexibility is different from one provided by employers. Employers can get flexibility in return if its not compulsory. I provide flexibility for the vast majority of my team. However, there is one person who very much works to rule when in the office. When he needed to take time off to look after a sick family member, I only provided the minimum required by contract (one week). For others, I would probably provide more, knowing that they would make an effor to do as much work as possible at home. It’s hard to get a quid pro quo endorsed in legislation.
    So (ramble over) – I don’t think it should be just for carers, but legislation is bound to be less generous than the best employers.

  6. dave.s. Says:

    bj’s remark about German companies not hiring pregnable women because of the possible losses echoes what I have heard/read about Sweden. If you create a situation where one sort of employee can cost you huge amounts, any hiring manager is going to try to avoid that sort of employee.
    And some jobs are just more efficiently done by people working full- and more-than-full time schedules. Couples in which both partners are working huge hours will either raise their children with inadequate time or through hired help, which has its own problems. Push in on the balloon at any point, it will bulge out somewhere else.
    Best solution? It will vary by family, but one partner with a less demanding job than the other will probably always be pretty frequent when the more demanding job is very demanding.

  7. bj Says:

    Sweden seems to solve the problem (that companies won’t hire women) by hiring them in the public sector. I hate it when I start to sound like a Republican, but I continually feel that the mother’s movement comes up with mandate solutions that simply won’t work in a competitive global economy.
    Everyone’s looking for the job that’s fulfilling, but not overwhelmingly demanding, and trying to avoid paying too steep a penalty for their desired level of flexibility. But each of those things has market costs. Fulfillment costs because it means more people will be available to do the job (a bigger labor pool). Demand decreases the labor pool. Flexibility costs something to implement. All of these things have to come out in some way in the way workers are compensated.
    When we have these “general principles” discussions, I never trust what the overall outcome of the mandates are going to be — take for example, the push to use less adjunct faculty at the UCs, which was heard by the Dean. So, she decided to use fewer adjunct faculty and hire more track faculty. What happened? The adjunct faculty lost their jobs, because in the competitive market, other, qualified people were willing to take the track jobs when they hadn’t been willing to take the adjunct jobs. People seem to come up with mandates as though the system is closed, and it’s not, and it’s becoming less closed every day.
    So, what I suggest is a more focussed discussion. What specific workplace change to do we want, a single one, that we can unite behind, figure out, and try to implement? Then we can talk about plans that don’t sound like an initiative to have a pony in every home.

  8. K Says:

    I’m working in a flexible work arrangement – a job share. I work half the hours of a full time job…but I also get half the salary.
    I love the flexibility and the part-time schedule. But there is a trade-off. Not only do you get less salary, but you are less available for big projects. You aren’t able to do a lot of the office networking type things (lunches…happy hours) For me, it is 100% worth it – a very justified trade-off.
    And I disagree with BJ. Some flexible arrangements do work well in the competitive global economy. My company gets two highly qualified people for the price of one. We cover for each other when there is illness or vacation. The workforce gets the skills of two mothers who might otherwise not be in the market. And the government gets our taxes! Yes, there are costs to implement flexibility – but there are also gains. Did you now that there is MUCH less turnover amongst employees with flexible work arrangements? I’ve been with my company for over 10 years because of the flexibility.
    I think that anyone should be able to work in a flexible job arrangement – for any reason. BUT – I think that most people aren’t going to want to make the trade-off unless there is some “higher purpose” (caring for a child, parent, illness etc.) I don’t know many people who will give up half their salary because they want to go biking every day.

  9. jen Says:

    For the people I supervise, I have long had a policy that *everyone* has to work a 40-hour week, period. If you provide that level of largesse just for parents, it causes divisiveness on the team.
    But the “parents need a break” approach is also an overt set-up for a long-term screwover. If you assume that people will put in massive hours before they start families, that they will drop everything to respond to any crisis, then you don’t bother to actually build in scale and redundancy in your organization. You don’t have to worry about measuring for effectiveness or efficiency — you’re just judging people by how late they stay. You give every incentive for people to build positions as “heroes” for their projects; not using good process, not communicating, not keeping up their documentation. (I often joke that “hero” is another word for “single point of failure”.)
    Then these workaholics rise to the top … their family lives are oftentimes in tatters … and then *these* are the people who are supposed to be leading, supervising, motivating the rest of the company? And we’re all super surprised when that doesn’t work out? I don’t think so.
    As much as I hate the current generation’s obsession with rock stardom, it does have some side benefits: they want flexibility in the workplace so they can make time for their music. Ever negotiated with an employee over an 8-week break so they can tour? It’s the same planning required for covering a maternity leave. It keeps you honest as a manager, makes you think about things like, “Does anybody else know how to care for this server / application / code base?”
    As an aside, if people think women of childbearing age are not discriminated against in the States, you’re just not opening your eyes. The same assumptions hold true here, although very few people say it out loud, as it is patently illegal to do so.
    In short, I believe flexibility is a must, and it has to apply to everyone or the workplace will never be truly fair for women.

  10. Christine Says:

    Possible flex-time really depends on whether the job demands you to be onsite or not. Some jobs offer more availability for flex time such as computer programming or online teaching. I have job-shared and would never do it again because I did not like being cut off from the corporate environment, where office presence is essential to advancement.
    I chose teaching as a career because it offers alot of flexible time and vacation time simultaneously with my child. Have women gravitated to those types of flex-time jobs (teaching, nursing, etc.) in the past?
    My experience has been that the workplace still does not hold flexiblity important if it is requested by and benefits mothers. There is still a pervasive attitude that women can just stay home, even though we live in a society where it takes two salaries to support a household. This reinforces that men have no caregiving responsibilities except to be the breadwinner.
    I was hoping Gen-Y would start to change the workplace environment since they value personal fulfillment on the same level or higher than career success. The other factor is that leisure time (present in the 1950s) for all workers is nonexistent. Part of the problem is that everything is open 24/7 and technology has put everyone on call. Years ago the only people I knew concerned with work on the weekend or weekday evenings were stockbrokers and doctors. But if jobs are going to require more attention while one is at home, I would support splitting the traditional work week between home and office.

  11. jen Says:

    One more comment: if government is not neutral about the reasons for mandating flexibility, I would fear that the conversation would immediately devolve into a fight over what’s a “real” reason for flex-time, and fairness. Birth of child: OK. What about the birth of your partner’s child, if you’re gay or common-law married? What about time off to travel overseas for an international adoption? Can you use the time to cover all the therapist and coordinator appointments for a child with Asberger’s? What about issues that are not overtly medical? I have taken days off to attend my kid’s plays. Does that count as caregiving?
    That said, we really can’t wait for the business world to mandate this. Who are we kidding? The business world that still fights tooth and nail to make everyone work the longest hours possible? Nothing less than the fear of litigation will change most businesses’ practices. But it’s true that it could really accelerate moves of more jobs overseas.

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