Flexible work schedules aren’t just for mothers

Posted March 10, 2013, at 6:04 p.m.

The Yahoo no-work-from-home brouhaha has had working moms up in arms. Professional women with children had been dealt a blow, they said. Oh, and as one writer reminded us, it’s an issue for working dads, too.

OK, but what about all the single people? And all the people without kids? We need to stop acting like they’re not part of the work-life conversation.

There are single employees who have to bring their aging fathers to cancer treatments. Shouldn’t childless men and women who want to work from home to take care of their health — say, by taking a yoga class during lunch and then working later at night — have the same rights as those who do so to take care of their kids?

Of course they should.

Yet the work-life balance debate has become so inextricably tied to the glass ceiling and the mommy-track debates that other voices are drowned out. Long-held cultural beliefs can leave non-parents unfairly picking up the slack at the office.

For instance, Cali Williams Yost, who advises corporations on work-life balance issues, tells the story of a young, single employee with no children who asked if he could come in late on Thursdays to train for a marathon, promising to make up the hours at other times. “Oh yeah,” his manager reportedly said. “And I’d like to ride in a hot air balloon every Monday.”

Not many workers feel comfortable even making such requests. We have a media culture that obsesses over the challenges of working parents — particularly moms. “No one wants to talk about this because they don’t want to be the jerk that doesn’t support the kids,” Yost says.

Many facets of our lives get short shrift other than children. “Work interferes with your ability to form romantic relationships, it interferes with friendships, it interferes with your health,” says Ann Marie Ryan, a psychology professor at Michigan State University.

Yost advocates a “reason neutral” approach to flexible schedules, a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for the workplace where employees simply share how they’re going to get the work done.

But sooner or later a manager will have to make a call about whether the employee who has to fly to Omaha for a big, last-minute sales pitch is the one with a sick child at home or the one with a final exam for graduate school.

There are no easy answers, but everyone knows who tends to win out in that scenario. As adults, obligations to children are a priority. At the same time, having children is a choice parents make, and it’s unfair to ask non-parents to do more than their share at the office. We all have a life outside of work.

Ultimately, managers have to find ways to make sure non-parents’ needs don’t always come last. And the initial step, Ryan says, is to show employees that it’s OK to have workplace flexibility for something other than picking up your kids.

The more non-parents speak up about the issue, the less it becomes marginalized as just a women’s issue or a parents-with-young-children’s issue. When that happens, things might get just a little better for all of us.

McGregor writes PostLeadership about leading in a changing world.

 

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