Women and work, flexibility and management

Last week was a busy news week for women who work. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, issued a memo to her employees saying they could no longer work from home. Yahoo is in bad shape and apparently Mayer believes the ban on working at home will help resuscitate the company. She received extensive criticism for this move, but ex-employees say that the work from home arrangement was abused by some and that Mayer’s decision was a good one. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who last summer wrote the hugely influential Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” weighed in on 2/28 to say that Mayer’s Job Is to Be CEO—Not to Make Life Easier for Working Moms and, basically, let’s let her do her job and try to save her company.

A 2/21 New York Times article about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg‘s upcoming  book, “Lean In,” took a quite critical look at her advice to women to lean into their careers. Slaughter and Sandberg disagree about the reasons for the gender gap in leadership positions, but from my point of view, they both present valid points in a complex and vexing issue.

And on 3/1 I attended the NYU Women’s Leadership Forum event “From Conversation to Action: Moving Beyond “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” keynoted by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

On 2/26 I woke up feisty mood and launched a series of twitter messages in response to the Yahoo work-from-home flap:

  • I think it’s unproductive to confuse work-from-home” with work-life balance issues. Both are important, but very different issues.
  • Q shld be “where is work best done?” Some is better done in a common (physical or virtual) space. Some better done alone away from office.
  • Work from home also requires managers to understand & monitor the output of their staff. Requires more engagement, so probably less popular
  • But this is management’s job. Instead of work from home maybe should be called sth like “right workplace for the right work”?
  • @jenlrile fact is, if I’m doing brainstorming or group planning, I want bodies in the room.
  • @jenlrile Phone/Skype in is always second best – always less participation from remote participant in my experience.
  • However, I regularly say to staff: I have a writing project and deadline so I’m leaving the office now for some quiet space.
  • I expect professionals to be able to right-size their workspace as well. And I notice when productivity wanes.
  • I also get “plumber is coming” or “child is sick” – I do that too. But policy about flexibility for things going wrong not same as [+]
  • [-] not same as planning how best to manage the work of the organization.
  • They are two different policies to accomplish two different, important things.

To expand a bit on my tweets, I think there are three very important but distinct “flex” issues that frequently get confused in conversations about worktime and workplace:

1. One kind of flexibility is what I’ll call (for want of a better term) the right-workplace-for-the-right-work. Sometimes it’s best to be in the office, and sometimes it’s not. That depends on what you have to get done and when. If you have meetings, especially with groups, face-to-face is probably best. Skype can work, but it’s really not the same as having bodies in the room hearing each others’ words and reading each others’ body language.

Picking the right workplace for the right work also depends on what kind of physical office you have. I can close my door for quiet work but my employees can’t. For work requiring extended concentration they may want to move to a quieter part of the library or even move outside the library (home? a noisy cafe? It really depends on what they need to get their work done).

2. Another kind of flexibility is needed for unexpected life events that occur: a child (or parent, or pet) is sick, the plumber is coming, you have to see the dentist, and we get sick ourselves as well. We all have these situations and must try to manage them as best we can. As colleagues and managers, we have to be caring and understanding of others in these circumstances.

3. Then there is the issue of work-life balance, which I think is more about identifying the right job or the right career for one’s temperament and preferences at a given time in one’s life. It is well known that junior lawyers at big law firms work notoriously long hours to make partner. Young lawyers for whom the life side of the work-life balance is very important are best advised to avoid such positions.

The question of work-life balance is really important for me personally, as I balance my own career ambitions with my personal interests and my family. I like to think that I help my employees find the right balance for themselves as well. But this balance is different for everyone, and will differ depending not just on the employee’s personal preference, but also the job itself, the profession, and many other aspects.

While I think these three flex aspects are all extremely important, when we advocate for flexible, supportive workplaces, I think we do ourselves a real disservice if we confuse the first two flex issues with work-life balance. In particular, confusing the right-workplace question with work-life balance can be particularly detrimental to our discussions because the former’s focus is on what’s best for the business and the latter’s is on what’s best for the individual. (Ideally the two should be in sync, as businesses are more successful if their employees are satisfied. But the work-life balance sync should be an important aspect of the interview process, setting the expectations for work hours, flexibility, and other workstyle or organizational culture issues up front before decisions are made.) I have seen arguments for right-workplace flexibility fail because it was mistaken for giving employees more free time away from work.

From what I’ve read about the Yahoo situation, this seems to be the crux of the problem: some employees were, in fact, abusing their right-workplace flexibility, not being productive or even running second businesses on Yahoo’s time.

Which leads me to my final point: all staff problems are really management problems. It is the manager’s job to enable her employees to get their work done and then to make sure that work gets done. If an employee isn’t getting her work done, it’s the manager’s fault. If Yahoo employees weren’t getting their work done, it is the Yahoo managers’ fault because they weren’t managing the work of the organization. After rescinding work-from-home, I hope Mayer is also looking carefully at her managers’ performance to understand where their work went wrong. As Slaughter said at the 3/1 NYU Women’s Leadership Forum event, “Manage the work, not the people […] Manage for performance, not proximity.”