It was May 1988. I was a commodities trader and had just given birth to my first child, a daughter. My company didn’t offer maternity leave, so I had to take sick time just to have the baby. I had flattened all my client accounts to protect them from market exposure while I was out. My mom had come from India to help, and we had a full-time live-in nanny. My husband, Jim, took off a month from his consulting project at Merck. But me? I went back to work two-and-a-half weeks after giving birth because my clients needed to be back in the market. Of course, there were many colleagues who thought I should stay home with my baby girl. After all, my husband made good money and I didn’t need to work.
Looking back, I cringe at the thought of how inflexible companies were and how diffident I was in not challenging the status quo. I’m not sure I would have been able to get my company to change its policies, but I didn’t even try.
Fast-forward seven years. I had become a successful wealth adviser at Merrill Lynch, and when my son was born in 1995, my company had a generous (by American standards) maternity leave policy: three months off, fully paid, with a fully funded home office—computer, phone and fax machine. My manager even assigned a new recruit to help cover my book of clients and one of the best assistants to support me in the office. He did everything in his power to make working motherhood a wonderful experience for my family and me. I stayed with Merrill until 2010, for almost 21 rewarding years. Ever since then, being able to work flexibly has become core to my success as a professional, wife and mom. You cannot underestimate the loyalty such policies and programs build.
Over time, working flexibly has become an amenity demanded by women and men alike, parents and non-parent employees. Gratefully, this next generation and technology have shown us how employees can be efficient, productive, effective and impactful, no matter how or where they work. There are, however, a few ground rules to establish around flexible work.
1. Make sure your organization measures output and not just input. Without that, top brass will always count the hours and heads in the office instead of what’s important: good work.
2. Have clear guidelines for the employees as they embark on their “flexing” journey—support them on being disciplined about finishing their work, setting up a home office and self-policing around childcare (yes, they need another caregiver when they’re working) and friends and family dropping in (no, they can’t come by for extended lunches or coffee breaks). And they must find a quiet place to work at home, not the family room or dining-room table.
3. Understand what is nonnegotiable on both sides. Are there certain duties that must be completed during work hours? Which days will you need to be in the office? Make sure you understand those clearly from the get-go.
4. Have regular check-ins with your reports and managers to see if expectations are being met on both sides.
5. Make sure you come to the office routinely to meet colleagues, collaborate in person, and socialize. All of these are critical in creating high-functioning teams.
6. Remember that flexibility is not just about where you are working, but also when and how.
At Working Mother Media, we offer a flexible work environment, but we are demanding of ourselves and our colleagues; we strive to do our very best work while supporting our team, delivering strong business results and taking care of our families—our children, our elderly relatives and ourselves. Our 100 Best Companies set a high bar in this regard. We honor and recognize them for creating work environments where their employees can work remotely, flexibly or traditionally. Not only will this engender loyalty like Merrill Lynch did in me when I had my son, but it will also create happy, engaged and productive employees.