Revisiting Work-Life-Balance – Not Only For Women

Just like the board meeting that led to it, this column started with a conversation about International Women’s Day, until we all realized we were discussing something else completely: the new era, the new generation, the new normal. This discussion started with an exploration of ways organizations can address the need for employment diversity – something that, before the pandemic, was considered more of a women-, gender- and family-related matter. In the process we realized the conversation on diversity triggers a key strategic conversation on the organization’s ability not only to hire and retain its employees, but also to connect, develop and function in a constantly changing world.

But let’s rewind.

None of the men or women in that board meeting had any intention to exclude women. Many of them have life partners with meaningful careers of their own. Furthermore, they want to see their sons and daughters experience a job market where they can choose the work they desire and not the work they are socially conditioned into doing. However, they realized International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to pause, look at the data and see if the new normal being created around us is also creating opportunities for better diversity.

And boy, this is a much-needed introspection. Data shows the work potential of women is not being sufficiently utilized. A year ago today, the Israeli Knesset Research and Information Center published a report, “Women in the Shadow of Covid-19”. The report stated that during Covid women were fired or forced to take unpaid leave more often than men. And this finding cannot be explained by the impacted industries. Another interesting finding is that women who worked from home had fewer working hours than men. This is probably because in about two-thirds of Israeli families where both parents are bread earners, women are solely responsible for cooking and laundry, and in half of these households, the woman is the only one in charge of the house chores. Another interesting insight from the report is that, for the most part, both partners share childcare responsibilities. However, in cases where parenting falls under the responsibility of one parent, 20% of women will be the main and exclusive care-taker whereas the same is true for only 1% of men.

But this is no longer only a gender story. The data from the Great Resignation in the US indicates that it is not only women who are now unwilling to return to the old work patterns of “9-to-5, go home, repeat”. We now have the opportunity to create a work environment that will offer a new model for both men and women, to redefine the new normal in the job market. A new normal that will both consider people’s needs in the post-Covid era as well as set up organizations to be agile and adaptive in an interconnected, unpredictable world.

To do this, we need to revisit the very basic definitions of flexibility of work-life balance:

  1. Flexibility is much more than work-life balance policies

There is no such thing as balance. At least not at any given moment. There are times when we are more available to focus on our careers, with no kids to pick up from school or any other urgencies. Other times can be the exact opposite.

Many women experience their 30’s as a challenging decade into which many big life events are compressed. That is the decade when many women end up building their careers, family, and financial safety net altogether. This is oftentimes true for men, too. Organizations wise enough to support their employees with the right level of flexibility during this decade, will gain their engagement and commitment.  

So, there’s really no point in talking about balance at a specific given moment. Balance is the ability to adjust various work and life aspects depending on the changing needs at any given time. There are times when employees need to decrease work load or intensity in order to free up time or energy to deal with personal or family-related matters including self-development or self-care. And there are other times when employees are thirsty for career development and growth and will enjoy every opportunity to take on more complex challenges at work.

  1. Allow managers to personalize

For too long we responded to work-life challenges through programs and policies. Covid-19 has taught us what personalization is and how we can do it right. The fact that your employee is a woman or a young mom does not necessarily mean that she needs the same thing as another woman or another young mom. Flexibility begins with listening, with being ready to recognize needs and tailor solutions to those needs. One woman will want to be there for her 6-year old when they return from school in the afternoon at least a couple of times a week. Another might want to train for the marathon and needs the ability to arrive and leave work on a flexible schedule. The third might want to take a few unpaid months leave to travel the world. 

You can’t write policy for this kind of flexibility. Instead, give your managers the authority to make the right decisions, to combine the needs of their people with that of the team and the organization. The starting point here is empathetic management that teaches managers to understand the employee’s point of view even if he had never experienced it. And I imply men in this situation with an intent. Female managers oftentimes have already been in those situations, where they needed that flexibility, thus making it easier for them to empathize with their female employees.

The good news is that empathy can be taught. Even if you don’t necessarily feel or understand what your employee is experiencing, you can still proactively listen to her, to walk a mile in her shoes and understand what she needs now. Without judging her on those needs, you can find ways to allow those needs. Start by saying “yes” and then figure out how it can be done.

  1. Personalize the design of jobs

Flexibility is so much more than allowing someone to leave earlier or work from home. One of the most meaningful tools that we have not yet fully utilized is the ability to tailor positions for various employees and their changing needs.

No job description is sacred. Jobs are groupings of responsibilities that we practiced and perfected throughout the years until we got to a full-time-equivalent job description. There is nothing preventing us from disassembling and reassembling these jobs for various reasons including the changing business needs but also those of the people doing the jobs.

This is where one of the most important possibilities of flexibility manifests. For people as well as for organizations.

For the organization, the ability to put right people on the right tasks at the right time is tat the basis of agility and the ability to move from hierarchy to networks-based organization. The hierarchies and org structures often prevent us from quickly shifting the people we have to the most important work. When a new challenge arises, we don’t have the tools to know and find the right people for the assignment because everyone already has a job, even if that job is not as important. In a hierarchical organization, a change in priorities requires a re-org. However, in a networked organization, people will know about and be able to shift into tasks based on priorities as well as needs and interests. For that to happen, we need to flex job descriptions.

And flexing job descriptions provides employees with the ability to grow, adapt, and adjust workloads. Instead of asking what their next job should be they can ask what work is there that I can and want to do? How much work do I want to take on and how much time do I leave for development or other life needs? And they can assemble their own job according to their ability to contribute as well as their career and personal objectives.

At Intel, as part of the “future workplace” project in 2012, we envisioned this kind of work experience in a video describing this exact future, relevant now more than ever.

In this fast-paced, changing, and surprising world that we live in today, flexibility is not only about diversity, women, or family. Flexibility is a personal and organizational skill that will separate those who succeed from those who won’t. This is your opportunity to channel International women’s day into a conversation on how you will adapt for the new normal.

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit leads an innovative conversation on the future of work and the strategies required to transform careers, organizations, management as well as broader economic and social systems such as education and civil service.

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