At first glance, my choice of career seems remarkably ill-conceived. I am CEO of SittingAround, a tech startup, and a full time management consultant. Either job alone would be incredibly time-consuming. Together they sound downright ludicrous. Oh, and did I mention that I am also a single mom to an 8-year-old boy?
Yet in spite of my myriad commitments, I consider my life pretty balanced. I'm out the door by 5 p.m. on weeks my son is with me (he splits time between me and my ex) and cook dinner most nights. I attend every soccer game and school open house and squeeze in four to five runs throughout the week. I am not superhuman, however; every day, I make conscious tradeoffs of how to spend my time, prioritizing to-dos and accepting the fact that not everything will get done. Most importantly, I have demanded the balance I have in my life rather than waiting for someone to give it to me. Each and every day, I prove that an engaging career need not be all-consuming, that you can do great work while also setting boundaries.
I am one of the lucky ones. Most women won't get the flexibility I have. They are either in careers that are less forgiving or they have bosses who don't believe in it. Most, regardless of their situations, are too afraid to even ask. They fear -- rightfully so, unfortunately -- that asking for flexibility will make them be perceived as lazy or not as committed to their careers.
But giving women (and men, too!) increased flexibility is a positive thing, not just for workers but for employers.
Input no longer equals equal output.
When our society was primarily industrial, the number of hours a worker spent at his job directly translated into the output he produced. If you're on an assembly line, this makes sense. And so it followed: the longer the hours, the greater the output, the better the worker.
Over the past 25 years, the nature of work has undergone a major transformation. We live in a world that is increasingly a knowledge economy. Rather than assembling widgets, many of us spend our days asking questions, thinking through problems, and influencing decisions. Where once our hands were the source of our labor, today our brains are. And brains don't quite work the same way as hands do. The total input (number of hours) does NOT directly relate to the total output when we're talking knowledge work.
Ask any corporate worker if each hour we spend is as efficient as the one before it and you'll see what I mean. There are some days when we're just in the zone, and in the course of one workday, we accomplish what normally might have taken us five. Then there are the days that we sit at our desks for eight hours unable to get much done. It's not our fault -- it's the way knowledge work goes. Sometimes we're incredibly productive, others not so much. Yet we're not measure by our output -- we're still measured, by and large, by our input, as though we were building widgets on an assembly line.
I think it's clear what I'm driving at here: the understanding of what constitutes "good work" hasn't caught up to the way many of us do work today. We need to shift our way of thinking and focus less on the amount of face time someone puts in and more on the amount they are able to accomplish.
Thanks to technology, knowledge work can be done just about anywhere.
The Internet is pretty remarkable. It allows us to be completely connected, all the time, from virtually any location. While there are inevitable drawbacks (see above: being connected all the time), it's hard to downplay the positives when it comes to work flexibility.
The Internet allows me to turn my dining room table into a highly-effective office space. I plug my laptop in and fire up my wifi, and I am ready to do all the same things I'd do if I were physically at work. Emails are no problem. Neither is instant communication. I collaborate real-time with colleagues over instant messaging software -- all but ubiquitous at big companies these days. Meetings are easy, too. I add audio and video to my virtual meetings so everyone can see and hear each other as though we were sitting in the same conference room.
The Internet has made it possible for me to work from home on Mondays and be every bit as effective, arguably more so. Which brings me to my next point...
Increased flexibility leads to increased productivity.
Most domestic work still falls to women whether they work outside the home or not. And for women who are physically away from the home for eight hours or more a day, domestic work adds an additional layer of stress and mental clutter. We are constantly keeping what we have to do when we get home in the back of our minds while we're at work: the laundry, the groceries, the errands to be run. This mental multi-tasking is distracting at best and downright productivity-killing at worst.
My Mondays are my most productive days because I am able to utilize the pockets of downtime in my day. These are pockets of time that, were I sitting in the office, would otherwise go unused. Ten minutes free? I throw a load of laundry in. An hour? I can run to the grocery store (when it's virtually empty! And I'm child-free!) and get my shopping done quickly. When I am working, my brain is focused completely on work because nothing else is cluttering my mind. As a result, I do some of my best work on Mondays.
At the end of the day on Mondays, I am not the least bit stressed. I don't have a long list of personal to-dos hanging over my head. I am able to make dinner, be with my son and go to sleep feeling accomplished and refreshed, ready to start Tuesday.
How do we get to a place where flexibility is seen as a positive thing for women and companies alike? Change requires a two-pronged approach. Corporate America isn't going to transform by itself. Women need to fight for flexibility and lead by example, showing how work-life balance is not at odds with having a career.
At the same time, executives need to take a step back and reevaluate how they manage employees. Flexibility isn't synonymous with laziness. In fact, the better a worker is, the more likely she is to want the flexibility to manage her commitments -- both professional and personal -- as she sees fit. Setting women up to be more productive at work and at home, to feel more balanced and content, is in the interest of everyone's bottom line.
We're not there yet. But the more we talk about it, the more we lead by example and ask for the flexibility we need, the sooner we'll effect real change at a societal level.
Erica Zidel is a Boston native who currently lives in Belmont. She's a 2004 graduate of Harvard and the founder of babysitting site, SittingAround.com.