My 27-year-old niece works flexi time at a big business technology consulting firm. "I don't see why I need to go into office at all, except once in a while when it is really necessary," she reasoned, shrugging her shoulders. "In any case, my boss comes into work once a quarter, I have a colleague in another office who is rated to be a top performer who hardly ever gets to work, and there is the hot-desking system in my office, so I don't even have a permanent place." (Hot desking is an office organisation system which involves multiple workers using a single physical work station or surface during different time periods. )
How do you connect with other people and work collaboratively, I asked her. With state-of-the-art communication systems, it turned out. "The other day, my boss asked me if I got what she was trying to say, and because I didn't, she clicked 'desktop sharing' and I could see what she was doing on her desktop, and she walked me through the complex calculation." Apparently they have lots of calls and virtual meetings, and so it's not like working in a solitary cocoon. So how then are you evaluated? "It's same as if I were in an office," she said. "I have metrics and score cards, and an internal customer survey that finds out how much value they think I have delivered." What if face time is absolutely needed ? In that case, she says, she does go to office. "To be honest," she adds, "the only thing I miss is the cooler talk; but I also think this way everyone is more objective and less personalised about issues, and the balance between life and work that I have makes me a better person to work with." Since she is an HR professional, I quiz her on how can she build an organisation and work culture with everyone working this way? "I build it in the virtual world, the same way you create it in the physical world," she retorted.
Clearly, the debate about flexi time is not a narrow, focussed one on women managing their office work and family responsibilities. It is about the role of work in our lives, the function of the physical workplace in work, and about the pluses and minuses of technology and human contact to get the best out of individuals.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE FLEXI?
So when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said that she wanted everyone in office every day, it wasn't like she was committing an act of aggression only against women. It is, however, true that most often men work flexi time out of choice, and women out of compulsion. Hence, if workplaces put back the clock on their attitude towards flexi time and refuse to accept it as a work format, many men will grumble but still survive. But many women will be incapacitated and forced to drop out.
Women do have special needs that workplaces need to find ways to accommodate in a win-win manner. This is needed not just as part of societal responsibility, because more women in the workforce is good economics, but also for the good of companies as it is an easy way to widen the pool for talent search - notice that I am not even going anywhere near the "diversity is-good" argument.
However, we must be clear that there are two different dimensions here - the amount of work and degree of flexibility. Hundred per cent workload and total flexibility works for some individuals and organisations; full work and no flexibility is the old world, masculine norm. Taking on less workload (for instance, managing one team or factory instead of two, handling local clients only and not outstation ones, working on one project instead of four) for less pay is the kind of thing we generally associate with flexi time. And part-time is yet another form of workload - flexi time managing.
But most women get 'had' when they end up getting the flak for being flexi time as well as taking on less work load. Therefore, when negotiating your work format always first discuss the work load and the metrics for evaluation, and then get to the timing issue rather than the other way around.
Late in my career, I had a boss who taught me how to do that. I went to the head of the business I worked in and said, "I can't bear to get to work at 9 on Monday morning. I also can't do this 'team-works-together ' work every single day. I need time to write and teach and, on occasion, to spend long stretches of time being housewife and mother to atone for my long absences while travelling.
“He said: "OK, let's first just disconnect the full time-part time issue from the rest. No part time. Let's go with full time. Next, forget 9 in the morning. Just make sure no client, internal or external, is yelling because you promised to be there and were not. Now, just bill two days a week, take two days to do your other stuff, and the one day left, participate in knowledge dissemination, training the young people. "
Not everyone is lucky to have such bosses, though. That's why it is important how you bargain your flexi work deal. I knew a young lady who worked in a big market research agency but she ended up quitting her job because her boss wasn't sensitive to her need to juggle her professional and domestic chores. She was bright and ambitious - and the mother of a two-year-old. But her boss was old-school (though young, very macho about working late in the office). All she needed was to get home at 12.30pm, take an extended lunch break to be with her baby; then be back at 3pm and work till about 6.30pm, when her mother-in-law, who would babysit, needed to go home. She was willing to get in early at 8.30am even though the office began at 9. 30am, and the boss strolled in at 10am, after a late night at work!
Typically, he wanted to start meetings at 6. 30pm, and she found herself apologising each day for not being there, and he used it against her. She then asked for a part-time work schedule but he said that just doesn't work. She had to quit.
This happened almost 20 years ago. In the present scenario the boss and co-workers are probably travelling half the time, and there is email and cell phones. Had the above mentioned young lady been working today, with the help of technology, she could have set her timings the way she wanted to and the boss wouldn't even notice.
You can work flexi provided you do it cleverly. I think women just need to negotiate harder and smarter and be thick-skinned while doing so. Let me explain this with an example of another young lady who failed to do so. After taking a maternity break, she joined part-time in the financial services part of a market research business. Her bosses were fine with the arrangement as this person spoke the same language as their clients and got them new projects. She should have used this skill to negotiate her work timings but she never did. Her deal was working fixed hours, part-time for a few specified days a week, for 60 per cent of what full timers were paid. The arrangement failed because client meetings got fixed when the client was available. After some struggle, they came to an agreement that she would make herself available whenever there was a meeting, but her bosses would not insist on her presence, and understand, if she couldn't make it even during her agreed working hours because of exigencies at home. In this day and age of travel, technology, global businesses with time differences, going flexi time is no big deal provided you don't pay attention to some snide comments and barbs from male colleagues and clients. But if you get your performance evaluation metrics clearly defined, then who cares!