"If a person is talented and works her tail off to deliver, she can call in from a cave four days a week," the CEO of an advertising agency in New York told me recently. Most bosses would agree with that sentiment. Several years ago, I managed a talented writer with two children and a long commute. When she became pregnant with her third child, I dreaded losing her entirely. Luckily, we quickly agreed to a plan where she would work from home every Monday and Friday.
A few days later, a young male writer with about nine unimpressive months on the staff paid me a visit. He wanted the same deal as the pregnant writer, he said, to perfect his yoga practice.
"It's not the same thing," I told him. "Yes, it is," he snapped in reply. "You're just making a value judgment that raising children is more meaningful than yoga."
Caught off guard, I asked for time to consider the matter. Looking back, I wish that I had said exactly what I was thinking, which was, "This is not about values, it's about performance." (He left the company to write a novel shortly thereafter, rendering his point moot.)
Third, bosses wish that employees knew that flextime programs described in the company brochure are mainly for recruiting purposes. Real flextime arrangements are negotiated one-on-one.
One senior executive in Miami told us about employees who approach flextime like "little technocrats," banking vacation days, handing in slips of paper noting half days worked, and meticulously keeping track of overtime. Their attitude, she said, is so legalistic it's almost adversarial. She described a flextime employee who left one Friday at noon, in accordance with the company's policy of "short weeks in the summer." Meanwhile a deadline loomed and the rest of the staff was hammering away in "war room" mode.
"I never really forgave her," the boss said. "She showed that she didn't care about the business or any of us."
Fourth, bosses wish that employees knew that flextime means you still may have to miss your child's Christmas play. Flextime does not make work-life conflicts go away. It only helps people navigate them better. This point was never clearer to me than the day I waited for a manuscript to arrive via e-mail from a flextime employee. Finally, I called her cell phone, and as she answered, I could hear children playing close by.
"Where are you?" I practically cried.
"The beach," she answered sheepishly. "With this weather, I couldn't resist."
"But what about the manuscript?"
Long pause: "Oh yeah."
"Are you mad? I planned to do it later."
Mad? Of course I was! The employee was a strong performer, but she was gaming the system. Immediately, I thought of the people who would end up paying for it—coworkers who would have to stay late, and yours truly, who would miss dinner with the kids to oversee the process.
I knew this employee was juggling a lot—work, kids, husband, life. I'd been there; I was still there. But as a boss, I had come to realize the larger implications of flextime. I attempted to explain this to her on the phone. "You do realize," I said, "that this is not okay, right?"
"I know, I know," she insisted.
But did she? Did she understand that employees who take advantage of flextime cannot also take advantage of the people around and above them who make her schedule possible? Did she understand that employees who reap the benefits of flextime must also never forget to treat it like the godsend it is, with a bit of awe and a lot of respect? I sure hoped so.
That day made me realize that I had to find a new approach to flextime. I would continue to tell my employees that I supported the policy. But it was also my job to raise the delicate topic of its connection to performance, not to mention my own priority, the company's results. I needed to let my employees know what I'd learned: that flextime was great for them but much less so for me, or any other boss.
Most managers will never give you that message. Still they wish—really wish—you would hear it anyway.
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