The Right Stuff
OK. All that sounds great, you’re probably thinking: But what are the odds I’m going to find a company like that? It’s true that most companies don’t have those breathtaking, eye-popping programs and stats to show off, at least not yet. Not every company is ready to, or is even able to, blow open its walls and structures and rules and set its stunned employees free. But you can still find smart companies and their managers who are tuned in to female work-life trends, and who are prepared to adapt to make things work, even within a more traditional structure.
At the Marriott Company, which has an enormous female workforce, senior managers are well versed in what’s coming—and that’s a critical attitude to look for. “I do think the workplace is changing—I’m not even sure companies are aware that it’s changing right underneath them,” says David Rodriguez, executive vice president of HR at Marriott. “I fully expect that within the next five years this building will look quite different,” he says, referring to Marriott headquarters in Maryland. “There will probably be more offices rented as needed and a lot of conference space facilities, teleconferencing. . . . I think it will be very different.”
The company has the standard flextime, compressed workweek, and telecommuting policies on offer, but do the real star managers take advantage of these programs? Not so much, yet. A group of top women we had lunch with, when pressed, said they’d love to work, say, four days a week but didn’t think a move like that would go over well. They still worry about perceptions. But Rodriguez tries to encourage his own team to work at least one day a week from home. He says they are more productive that way. And he’s experimenting. He has a group of “flex – staffers” working on projects—managers who’ve worked at the company before and who are valued—but don’t want to work full time. It may be that those women we had lunch with have more power than they think.
One example of the company’s modern outlook is Laura Bates, a senior executive star, who recently resigned her post at Marriott to spend more time with her children. When she announced her decision, the company surprised her by offering interesting and well-paid contract work that would keep her connected. David Rodriguez hopes that when her children are older, Laura will choose to dial her career back up, at Marriott. “Somewhere, say three to five years out, we fully expect Laura is going to be part of our senior management somewhere in the company,” he says confidently. “It’s crucial to keep her connected.”
You might imagine the massive PepsiCo to be rigidly set in its corporate ways. Hardly. Even though they don’t have a formal, all-inclusive flexibility program like Sun, for example, their management style is progressive. Working from home some of the time? Usually not a big deal, says Cynthia Trudell, the head of personnel and a senior vice president.
“Years ago there was a general attitude—‘Oh my, if people are working from home, they won’t be working.’ ” She smiles. “But we believe, and this is literally around the globe, that if people don’t have to be here and they can work from home, then they are in better control of their time.”
It’s a good sign when a company understands work can happen anywhere. It’s even better when bosses push employees to create a less rigid existence. Let them know it’s OK. PepsiCo cemented a program into its performance reviews called “One Simple Thing.” It forces employees to name something not really work-related they’d like to accomplish—to do differently—that might change their routine at the office. Something they may be reluctant to do otherwise—like getting out early to the gym one day a week or working from home one morning.
And a critical thing to look for: can valued managers dial back for a while? Go part time? That is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but productive employees get a yes whenever possible. Remember Angelique Krembs? She spent almost two years working from home part time. “Where it makes sense we will go out of our way,” Trudell says. “When you work hard at bringing people in, making them part of the organization—if you need those skill sets in the long run it makes sense. It can be a win-win for everyone.”
Even if the practice isn’t yet thoroughly ingrained in company culture, or spelled out in a policy book, if you uncover at a prospective company open minds like they have at PepsiCo or Marriott, then the job you’re looking at is a good bet. You have a chance to be a pioneer and poster child for the company, which is valuable for everyone.
Or you might just get lucky enough to come upon an individual boss like Dot O’Brien. For the two lawyers she employs flexibly—i. e., for the hours they want to work and not more— Dorothy O’Brien gives this grade report: “I judge by results and how they’re delivered, the skill with which they’re delivered, and I believe these two lawyers deliver results that are certainly, at a minimum, equal to colleagues that may have to be here, or choose to be here for longer hours.”
If you hear a sentiment like that, take the job. You will be in very good hands. Thank you, Dorothy, for recognizing what we know to be true.
What can we say—we’re biased. We believe the most meaningful breakthroughs will come when companies stop treating flexible schedules as favors. Gazing out at nirvana, we think that when women, or men, have to give a reason for their “different” schedules, and this in turn means that bosses are then put in the position of having to judge whether or not those reasons are valid, then it results in an inherently unhealthy situation for the feng shui of a modern workplace. It makes some women, or men, nervous, so they don’t ask, and it makes bosses even more nervous, so they don’t offer. A spiral of resentment can build fast on both sides. We’ve spoken to many employers who find the situation incredibly awkward. “We don’t want to choose between a one-year-old daughter, a sick parent, and an unfinished novel,” they tell us. Most bosses simply don’t want the responsibility of passing moral judgment on an employee’s reasons for wanting to change their schedule.
We sympathize. Honestly. Who are we to say that one demand is “better” or more “valid” than another. We certainly don’t care whether your desire to change your life is your children, as ours is, or your dog, or your lotus position.
But the solution to all of these employer concerns is beautifully simple, if you’ll allow us to indulge in a little Womenomics advice to the CEO. Simply stop judging. Does it really matter if it’s little Pat the toddler or big Pat the poodle that’s driving the demand for change? So long, of course, as the work is getting done, the goals are being met, and the employee is producing as she should, why she leaves at 3 p. m., arrives at 10 a. m., or works from her spare room is really irrelevant.
In other words, it’s the results, stupid.
“When you think of all of the ways it could go wrong, you won’t change,” warns Greg Papadopoulos of Sun. “It takes courage from the management side.”
So woman up, corporate America! Are there concerns? Yes. Will it require some work? Yes.
But this is going to be a more pressing issue than ever in a flagging economy. All of the big business thinkers say the focus will necessarily shift to efficiency and productivity. The core tenants of Womenomics.
A more porous, more flexible, and more dynamic workplace is the business future, whether you see that now or not. “The shift is clearly toward that environment,” agrees Bruce Tulgan. “It will happen underneath companies,” agrees David Rodriguez, “and one day they will sort of say maybe we should ride this wave and let policies facilitate what’s already happening.”
The companies who understand the organic, all-encompassing nature of this tidal wave and embrace it are those who stand the best chance of beating the competition on every level. They will be first to the next frontier.
“At Wal-Mart we started experimenting with sustainability a few years ago, and nobody was thinking about it as a way to make our business more efficient or profitable,” notes Tom Mars. “It was all about image and doing good. As we got in to it it’s turned out to be unexpectedly helpful to the business, beyond anybody’s wildest imagination. And I think, as we enter into this flextime and this workforce awareness paradigm, there’s a clear parallel. It seems like the right thing to do, but soon everyone will see that the business case is just obvious.”
How lucky, really, that we live in an era when letting people work the way they want to turns out to be good business, and good business in any economic climate. Sun can attract talent from all over the world. Capitol One can spin its positive energy into profits. And companies like PepsiCo and Marriott have the wisdom to understand how much they’ve invested in executives like Angelique Krembs and Laura Bates, and therefore they’ve said yes to their desire to work in a different way. They are looking beyond temporary career lulls and betting on the future with these women.
Like most things, it just boils down to simple economics. Or should we say, happily for us, Womenomics.