Off Balance: Unequal Work-Life for Parents and Non-Parents?

She is leading the way in her fieldBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Do parents get a better deal in the office when it comes to work-life balance? An increasing chorus of workers says yes. A recent article in The New York Times called “When the Work-Life Scales Are Unequal” garnered hundreds of comments reflecting conflicting viewpoints on how to address the perceived inequity.

Some interviewed for the article shared their experience of having to work up to 70 hours a week to pick up the slack covering for colleagues who were on “kid duty.” One interviewee was quoted as saying, “Parents are a special class and get special treatment,” noting that unlike many of the parents with whom she worked, she often sacrificed her own family duties to care for her elderly grandparents because of work commitments.

Marketer Allison Hart says that the conversation brought back memories of serving as an EVP of marketing for an international company earlier in her career. “There were always stacks of work to get done but the hallways were empty by late afternoon because it was Back-to-School night, or Halloween, or recital night, or Little League playoffs, or someone had the chickenpox,” says Hart.

Hart added that while there always seemed to be a good reason for parents to leave work before the end of the day because of their kids, as a single person with no children, she felt she had no comparable “need” to leave early. “I used to joke that if I needed to get my hair done, I would tell people I had a parent-teacher conference, even though I have no children!” says Hart.

Many non-parents chimed in to explain that they feel left out by flex initiatives aimed specifically at moms and dads. This could lead to resentment between the groups, and a difficult office environment. How can managers allay these tensions?

Changing Perspectives

Allison O’Kelly, founder and CEO of the national flexible staffing firm Mom Corps, told The Glass Hammer that work-life alignment is not solely a working mom issue anymore, and organizations that fail to realize this are at a grave disadvantage for retaining top, non-parent talent. A recent Mom Corps survey found that nearly one in two of all working adults surveyed (45 percent)—parents and non-parents alike—are willing to give up some percentage of their salary for more flexibility at work. “Nearly 10 percent is the average proportion of their salary working adults are willing to relinquish,” says O’Kelly. “That’s almost double the amount of last year’s survey.”

Danielle Corazza, principal of Applegate Solutions, says that her perspective on workload/overload has changed over the years to become more understanding of the plight of parents. “I wholly resented mothers and fathers who routinely left work or called in due to issues with children before I had a couple of my own and realized how taxing my relative flexibility was for parents who had to operate within standard hours of daycare and school hours,” explains Corazza.

Corazza believes there’s some symmetry to this balance, even if it isn’t always equal. Earlier in your career when you are trying to prove yourself, the ability to take on a larger workload is often the means for success among your peer group. This may mean early and late meetings, long work hours, and extra availability—especially if you are positioning yourself as the go-to person. Yet once women have children (traditionally today in their late 20s into their 30s), they are typically more secure in their career and skills, having moved beyond the point where creating a name is the only way to get ahead. “This transition allows for the new up-and-comers to shine, and you to enjoy the earned rewards of pulling back a smidge to manage other life priorities,” says Corazza.

A new work-life pressure may be looming for all generations, according to Corazza. Many workers today have the added pressure of being caregivers for an elderly person, and this additional time-consuming task for the current “sandwich generation” may force a new revolution in employer time management. “Elderly parents are an equalizer for everyone, not just those that choose to procreate and those that don’t,” says Corazza.

Greg Marcus, author of Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life, left the corporate world three years ago to be a stay-at-home dad while his wife continued to work in the biotech industry. Marcus reflects the rare viewpoint that the work-life scales are equal between parents and non-parents because today companies expect all employees to make work the highest priority in their lives. “There is a strong unspoken push that everyone should spend as much time as possible working, and when people make something outside of work a higher priority, something is wrong,” says Marcus.

He allows that this issue comes up more with parents because kids provide a natural pull away from the workplace that people without children don’t automatically have. “The same thing would happen to non-parents if they had a health issue or another crisis that took them away from the workplace,” suggests Marcus. “I recently talked to a single woman who lost her job because ‘she acted like her health was her top priority.’”

Leveling the Scales

Though opinions vary on the degree and locus of the problem, many agree that solutions are needed for better work-life solutions for all. Here are some ideas for forward-thinking companies and executives to consider:

Emphasize results, not face time. O’Kelly’s solution for organizations looking to even the work-life playing field for all professionals is to implement a results-oriented work environment, or ROWE. By placing emphasis on business results and outcomes rather than on filling an eight-hour day, all employees are held to the same standards and expectations.

“So if a working parent needs to leave early to go to an event for a child, that is perfectly fine, as long as they accomplish their work,” explains O’Kelly. “Similarly, if a non-parent would like to take a Friday to work remotely to volunteer or explore a passion, that’s okay too, as long as they accomplish all tasks assigned.”

Adopt a standard. The best work-life programs are available to all employees who can make a business case for flexibility, without regard for the reason one needs flexibility, according to Cynthia Calvert, 25-year law veteran and principal of CT Calvert & Associates. Calvert, a former law firm partner and co-founder of the Project for Attorney Retention, has both worked reduced hours and supervised other lawyers working reduced hours. She says that many employers, including law firms, have adopted a standard of greater equity.

“Employers that don’t make flexible work programs equally available to non-parents increase their attrition, increase their administrative burden, put themselves in the awkward position of having to determine which life reasons are worthy, and increase their legal exposure,” says Calvert.

Hold management accountable. Calvert attributes the problem of failing to provide successful employee work-life solutions to a failure of management. “The reality of most workplaces is that work not done by employees who have reduced their hours gets dumped on those who work standard hours,” says Calvert. “Successful flexible work programs require active management of workloads, which may mean that supervisors need to be creative in how to get work done.”

Some suggestions include adjusting deadlines, breaking jobs up into component parts, outsourcing work to temps or contractors, job sharing, and using technology to reduce workload. “Employers that don’t actively manage workloads may undermine their work-life programs by creating resentment among employees,” warns Calvert.

Make policies clear. Well-managed work-life programs include a policy that sets forth how workplace emergencies will be handled when an employee is scheduled to be out of the office. Calvert usually advises employers that parents not be exempted from dealing with true emergencies (i.e., not emergencies that arise because the supervisor forgot to give the assignment until the day before it was due or because the supervisor is testing the employee’s commitment), but that parents be given wide latitude to do the emergency work and then be given compensatory time off.

She also often recommends that a program coordinator review the hours of employees who are working flexibly to ensure that the company is honoring its commitment to all employees, and if necessary, to address with the employees’ supervisors changes to assignments that might be necessary in order to make the arrangements work.

Make that change. Marcus suggests that if someone is complaining that they have more work because someone else has a family commitment, it is a cry for help. “They want to find a way to say no to work, and yes to something else in their lives,” he says. “This is not a change that can come from the company or the government. This needs to come from inside each of us.”

Marcus reflects an example in his own life of how to make a shift in work-life balance regardless of your family status. Over the course of one year, he dropped his number of weekly work hours from 90 to 60 after realizing that he had made his company, and not his family, his highest priority.

To regain a sense of his own priorities, when the phone rang after hours, he no longer took the calls. He stopped doing email after 9 at night and on weekends. And no one in the office noticed. He eventually walked away from his six-figure salary. “When I reoriented my values and priorities to put people first, my hours dropped and my family life got better,” says Marcus. “The issue is that people are being given too much work to do, and the only way to change that is to begin to say no.”