Social Icons

twitter facebook google plus linkedinrss feed email

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The times they are a'changin'

I was on an call at work yesterday, when a colleague who had been presenting a paper announced:

"Please excuse me for a minute. I'm looking after my son, and he just fell over."

It made me quite happy. Not because a child was potentially injured, you understand. That would be completely weird. In fact, more than weird. But it was fine, the child was okay.

What made me happy was the person speaking, and the response from another person on the call, "Don't worry, we've all been there."

It really made me think about how much positive change there has been in the workplace, even since I got my first graduate job ten years ago. Even when I started, the above scenario would have been very different.

Work was still somewhere you "went", and it was all about being there. Presenteeism was rewarded, which  led to appalling work-life balances and subsequent impact on relationships and families. Socialising with team was expected, further reducing time spent at home, and if you didn't (like me) it could have a negative impact on your career. Alternative arrangements were viewed with suspicion. Some of us had laptops, but working from home was viewed by managers as though the employee was having a skive.

This was bad for people, bad for families, and bad for the organisation. Driving stressed employees, unhappy with their family life, to deliver quantity over quality is not a recipe for success.

However, things slowly changed.

I started to lead my own team. Half of the worked in London, and travel budgets were tight. Managing from a distance, when half the team is with you, has potential pitfalls. The distant team can feel isolated, invisible, and resentments can build, especially if the distant manager focuses on petty things like when people leave the office, or why someone wasn't on the phone.

My leadership style was to establish relationships based on trust, in which my basic assumption was that my team were adults who could be trusted. They had Service Level Agreements with our customers, and if they met them, then I didn't really care that on an individual day Person A took a longer lunch hour..

My managers did not share the same view, and I had a constant battle to protect my team from what I perceived to be old-fashioned and unrealistic attitudes.

For example: I had an absolutely excellent team member, who I was coaching to become my deputy in London. She was a single parent. Occasionally, her childcare fell through, or she got a call from nursery to say her son was sick. I could see quite clearly that in those circumstances she had absolutely no other option but to leave work. Absolutely none. Not negotiable. I could also see quite clearly that there were plenty of occasions that she had stayed late to finish off some work.

My manager would call me (from London - I was also being managed remotely) to ask me why my team member had left the office at 15:00.

I would ask why they wanted to know.

Was there a specific piece of work they had asked her to complete? "No".

Had one of our development customers called with a query? "No".

Then why did it matter that she'd left at 15:00? "Because it sets a bad example for other employees."

I explained that there was no alternative. No childcare. Circumstances beyond our control. Either she goes home with my blessing, or she goes off sick or takes annual leave. And those last two were not going to happen to my team. And further, in my view, it set a great example to the team. Their employer would allow them to do their job, but not at the expense of their family life. What's wrong with that as an example?

The overwhelming impression I got from that management team was that they fundamentally could not understand that the relationship with an employee is one of give and take. Every person on my team went above and beyond what was written in their contract on multiple occasions. My manager didn't call me to tell me when that happened, did they? They didn't call me to ask why one of my team had only had a half-hour lunch, or had stayed until 18:30 three nights that week. They didn't give anything like that recognition to their employees, and yet, they expected to be able to reply to employee's occasional, reasonable needs with outraged inflexibility. Come in at 09:00, go at 17:00 unless you have specifically requested a contract change.

"Be" at work. "Go" to work.

I sighed. My team member then asked if she could apply for remote access and a laptop, so that she could keep up with work when had to take a day off if her son was ill. Bless her. She was very conscientous. She cared about doing her job well. And yet, she was treated by managers as though she couldn't be trusted. They acted as though every single employee was trying to do as little as possible.This had a huge impact on the effectiveness of performance management in the organisation.

That team member was one of the most talented people who've ever worked for me, and my managers treated her as though she was an under-performer. Which made it impossible to actually manage the under-performers effectively.

So, why was I happy at the call today, when the concerned Dad popped off for a minute to check his little boy was okay, and someone replied that "we've all been there?"

Because, all of a sudden, I realised things had changed so much. It showed how much work is now not somewhere you go.Instead, it's something you do. And you can do it in the office, or on the train, or when you're looking after your children.

The boundaries of the office are no longer defined by the bricks and mortar of the buildings.

More and more you will be measured against your achievements not against the time you spend in a building. You will be able to work from home and not have managers think you're having "a skive". You will be able to pick up your child from swimming at 16:30 and still be considered serious about your career. You will be able to look after your parents when they are ill and still be trusted with key projects and considered a reliable member of the team.

It wasn't like that when I started work, but it almost is now. I wondered what else has changed that I just haven't quite noticed yet, and what other changes will be enabled by advancing technology.


  1. Glad to hear there's been so much progress since I left. And it's particularly awesome that it was a bloke who said that.

    I'm now in the Netherlands, and it's even less controversial for parents (both sexes) to work from home, work flexibly, and work part-time. ("I'm not available on Wednesday," said our Scrum Master. "Wednesday is my daddy day." "Thursday, then?" was the only reply.)

    I also work with a team in the US. One member is, due to the tragic death of his wife, the single father of a very young child. He works from home, sometimes while she's at home with him. So we often hear a little voice in the background. When I first started working for the team, his team leader was very defensive of his arrangement, and made it clear that it wasn't open to questioning or alteration. I made it equally clear that I didn't give a toss about his working arrangements, noting that he was clearly doing a fantastic job.

    I live in hope that this change will be the first of many moves from the mindset that employees must be watched at all times lest we do too little work to one where we're given the freedom to do all the awesome stuff that we are, frankly, dying to do.

    1. It was particular gratifying that it was a man. Admitting he was looking after a child. In the working day. It has changed a lot since you left, thankfully!

      There is still is a bit of a thing about part-time, although much, much less than before.