When Durham mom Dara Shain recently got the dreaded call from daycare that her daughter was sick, she didn’t bat an eye. Even though she was needed at her job at the Indy Week, she knew she had things covered.
“Having a laptop and iPhone allow me to work from anywhere, so I’m able to have the flexibility our family needs to function,” Shain said. Although she’s suffered through full body rashes (her daughter) and leaky roofs (her house), Shain’s work as a senior account executive hasn’t suffered.
According to President Obama, Shain is living the American dream. At the recent White House Summit, he announced that he is instructing all federal agencies to allow workers to request flexible schedules without fear of reprisal or retaliation. That last part of instruction is what’s important: federal workers have technically had access to flex schedules since the 1970’s. But the implementation of that policy has been traditionally lacking, with many employees saying they feared the loss of their job if they asked to change their hours.
During the White House Summit on Working Families, Obama covered a number of what he called “kitchen table issues,” those which affect families at their heart. For many families, the ability to attend a child’s school performance, or to take time off for a doctor’s appointment, is instrumental to their family’s health, happiness, and stability.
“I have always been susceptible to mommy guilt, but being able to flex my schedule helped me feel like I didn’t have to make the choice between failing at home or at work,” explained Alison Kiser, who has a flex schedule at Planned Parenthood of Central NC. During her daughter’s first six months in daycare, her daughter fell sick literally every week.
“There were lots of times that I had to take her to the doctor or stay home with her doing the best that I could to work from home, and then finishing anything else up whenever I had a spare minute in the evening after [my husband] got home.”
Employers are increasingly wanting to offer workers a sense of work-life balance, and employees are taking them up on it in increasing numbers. For some, it means arriving to work in the pre-dawn hours and leaving in the mid-afternoon in order to miss rush hour traffic. For others it’s working longer days and shorter weeks.
Megan Katsaounis, a program administrator at UNC, works a shorter day so she can pick her daughter up from school at 3 pm. Then during the evenings and weekends she clocks the hours to round out a full 40-hour workweek. She said this flexibility inspires in her a deep sense of job satisfaction and loyalty.
“People work best when their bosses recognize them as human beings with full lives,” Katsaounis said. “My boss makes it clear that he doesn’t care if work gets done in the office or at home, at 8 am or 8 pm, just as long as it gets done.”
According to Brie Weiler Reynolds, who works for FlexJobs and blogs for MomsRising, flexible work is essential to helping moms stay in the workforce. Thirty percent of mothers of very young children stay at home with their children. Undoubtedly some moms stay at home so because they want to, but for many others it’s the only way to balance a world where their spouse works an inflexible job and children have—let’s face it—less than flexible needs.
Technology, an industry which largely offers flexible schedules to its workers, has much higher rates of female employee retention. This is due in no small part, said Weiler, to women being able to work when they want and where they want—whether that means in a coffee shop outside their child’s preschool, or from a home office at 10 pm after their child’s bedtime.
Women who are given access to flexible schedules are also happier, healthier, and are more loyal to their employers. This only stands to reason. Who is going to be happier: a mom who watches their little Mason or Sophia singing in the chorus on YouTube, or the one who watches their children in person?
When President Obama, and other world leaders, spoke at the Summit about times they had flexed their schedules, a theme prevailed of them having few walls between their work lives and home. “I live above the shop,” Obama joked to the audience. But this can be a real problem. What starts as a job perk can become a pervasive sense that an employee should always be working.
“There were definitely times that I felt like I didn’t have a single free second to myself because I was either with [my daughter], taking care of stuff around the house (laundry, cooking, etc.), or getting caught up on work in the evening,” Kiser said, remembering a time when she was balancing diapers, grant applications, and low-grade fevers. “However, some of that I brought on myself because I always could have taken paid time off, and elected not to.”
Katsaounis agreed. “Depending on what kind of day I’ve had, sometimes it’s just not realistic to try to work from 8-10PM. My brain is pretty exhausted by then.”
Pressure can be on us women to stay always “on”—both as an employer and as a mom. But as flexible schedules become more pervasive—and more dads take on the mantle of kid care on holidays and sick days—it’s possible this expectation will fade. Regardless, said all the flexible moms Women AdvaNCe spoke to for this story, they can’t imagine ever taking a job again that features a time clock or a rigorous expectation of when employees sit at a desk, and when they go home.