In 1999 I talked to my then employer about an idea I had. I was training as a coach for leaders and teams and loving what I was learning. At the same time I was a senior producer with a major broadcaster and didn’t want to walk away from a career I’d devoted a decade to. My solution was beautiful...
A job-share. Surely if my working-mum colleagues could job-share, so could I?
Apparently not. I was told that job-shares were only considered for working parents and were only a temporary stage that would lead back to full-time employment in the end.
It was certainly not an option that allowed me to juggle my broadcasting career and my new business venture.
Inevitably, of course, I left my job and have been running my own business for the last 17 years.
The lack of alternative options forced me to take a leap that I have never regretted. But the rationale still bugs me.
I have always found “family-friendly policies” divisive. In the workplace multiple generations work side by side, all with their own interests, priorities, responsibilities and values. They all happen to work for the same company but, other than that, their lives are unique.
So why can’t the way they structure their working lives be unique too? Why is parenthood the only variable we recognise?
As a childless employee back then (I now have a 9 year old daughter) I was expected to take my summer vacation outside of the school holidays in order to leave those weeks free for parents. This was not a hardship as I welcomed vacationing away from thousands of little tykes.
But the principle was the thing that bothered me.
The same applied to time off over Christmas, working day shifts rather than late shift, or working from home. Priority was given to the parents in the office who often felt terribly guilty that such options were only available to them.
But the world, and the workplace, is changing.
And here are five major trends employers need to take seriously when they consider how relevant their focus on family-friendly working practices really is -
1. Generational trends
Millennial employees and their younger iGen brothers and sisters say that flexible working is a more desirable employee benefit than financial bonuses.
21% of Gen Xers say the same thing. 2/3 of Millennials expect to work remotely. And 47% of them want to be able to take sabbatical leave from their job and pursue personal interests outside of work.
The iGeneration (born around the millennium and after) feel even more strongly about this. 75% say they will not compromise their personal values or their authenticity for their work and would leave a job that made them choose.
Parenting is only one dimension of flexible working and only relevant to a proportion of employees at any one time.
This might be youthful naivety. But what if it isn’t? After all, the older generation want this too. Those approaching retirement age often don’t want to stop work entirely or can’t afford to.
Parenting is only one dimension of flexible working and only relevant to a proportion of employees at any one time. It will be increasingly hard to insist that parents are the only employees who can benefit from so-called family-friendly practices.
2. Meaning and purpose over hierarchy and status
Not only do younger generations value flexibility regardless of their parental status, but they also prioritise work that has meaning and gives them a sense of purpose.
They don’t need parenthood to give them a sense of perspective about what’s really important.
76% of the iGeneration are concerned about man’s impact on the planet. 60% want to have a positive impact on the world themselves. 39% of Millennials feel this way. As we become more self-actualised our expectations for our life increase.
We don’t just want a payrise and a promotion and a carriage clock at the end of 35 of 40 years of loyal service. We want to do work that makes a difference. And we have less respect for authority.
The hierarchy is breaking down. Stepping off the slippery pole for a few years isn’t just appealing to new mums or to parents who’ve realised that some things are more important than the big corner office and a fancy job title.
Increasingly it’s less important whether you have family-friendly policies in your organisation than whether you can offer people at all stages in their career work that meets their personal needs and aligns with their values.
3. Output-based working practices
An emerging trend in forward-thinking businesses is to move away from measuring the value of employees by the number of hours they work and towards their outputs.
Companies like Best Buy in the USA started the trend which is now growing in popularity. In such workplaces conversations about working hours, time off, sick leave, duvet days etc are actually forbidden. All that matters is that you, the employee, contribute what you’ve agreed to deliver to the business.
[With output-based working practices], people are valued for what they bring to the business, not how many hours they sit at their desk being busy.
If you can do that better from home, from your customer’s office, from your office or at 10pm at night having spent the day walking the dogs, that’s all good as long as your choices don’t negatively impact the ability of your colleagues to deliver their contribution.
Being “family friendly” is not the motivation of such policies. Instead people are valued for what they bring to the business, not how many hours they sit at their desk being busy.
4. Teal organisations
A new breed of businesses described by Frederic Laloux in his book “Reinventing Organisations” as Teal is replacing conventional, hierarchical, profit driven business models.
Teal organisations are typically purpose-driven, flatter structures where individuals are empowered to identify “tensions” in the company and resolve them themselves.
Such companies tend to see themselves as living organisms rather than machines and are far more integrated in to the local community than more traditional companies.
It is common for such companies to encourage people to bring their dogs to work, for breast-feeding mothers to attend meetings with their babies, for children to lunch with their parents and for home and work to be less distinct.
In future it’s our emotional intelligence, our ability to empathise, our ability to read between the lines and innovate that will be what’s valued by our employer.
Based on trust rather than on the principle that people will abuse the system given the chance, working hours, parent-friendly policies and remote working have ceased to be relevant concepts.
5. Bots are replacing humans
The capability of robots and AI is improving exponentially. Many jobs that are currently done by human beings will soon be done by computers (a trend that we’ve already seen for decades but that is picking up pace all the time).
Consequently the only work that will be left for human beings is work that a computer won’t be able to do.
Anything related to processing data, managing systems or logical problem solving will be done by the bots. I’ve even heard a customer service bot take a phone call and talk intelligently with the human caller! What does this mean for the human workforce?
It means that in future it’s our emotional intelligence, our ability to empathise, our ability to read between the lines and innovate that will be what’s valued by our employer.
A human-friendly workplace will be a business imperative, not a nice-to-have.
The workplace will need to adapt. If we’re no longer simply cogs in the machine but required to be listening, thinking, feeling contributors, the workplace environment, working hours, compensation, development and recognition and reward will all need to change.
A human-friendly workplace will be a business imperative, not a nice-to-have.
Offices, co-working spaces and ways of working that bring out our humanity (rather than tolerate our humanity) will become the norm for all workers.
We won’t see parents as the exception who need a bit more flexibility to do the “human nature” thing for a few years until their kids go to school.
We’ll see all employees as needing to do the “human nature” thing in order to be able to do their demanding, emotionally switched on jobs.
Of course the workplace should be family-friendly. But just as women’s rights in the workplace have evolved in to a conversation about diversity of all kinds, so should the conversation about family-friendly practices evolve. Yes, let’s be family-friendly.
But more than that, let’s be human being friendly.
About Blaire Palmer
Blaire Palmer is CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy dedicated to inspiring leaders in fast-paced, ambitious businesses to drive change in their organisations in partnership with their people. Blaire has been described as a "secret weapon", a "business muse" and "that lady who does the leadership and team stuff". She is a regular guest expert on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and BBC Working Lunch.