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Is Your Life Working?

Are “family-friendly” policies really all they’re cracked up to be? A panel of experts looks beyond trendy work-life policies to the next big thing: the “no-policy” policy.

Your company does all the right things and makes all the right noises. It subsidizes employees’ child-care expenses, or at least offers help in finding care. It has extensive policies about flexible work — telecommuting, flextime, part-time schedules, and the like. It springs for “concierge” services, such as on-site dry cleaning and oil changes.

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So the company must be “family-friendly,” right? But is it really such a great place to work?

Here’s the problem: Most employers’ efforts around work-life sanity have proved unfulfilling because they’re patches — and the wrong patches at that. Companies are stuck in the land of The Organization Man, comforted by the conceit that work is the dominant force in their employees’ lives. Work sets the rules, and people arrange their lives accordingly.

Can we imagine a new way of thinking about work-life issues? A few smart companies are already trying. The best work-life policy, they would say, is no policy at all. Their take: We want to work with people who have lives — “whole employees,” as the current jargon would have it. We want them to make the decisions about how they work and how they live. We’ll just set realistic goals for their work and then get out of the way.

The idea is both revolutionary and obvious. Every employee survey in the world shows that people care less about child-care options or about job flexibility per se than they do about control. So give them control. Until they fail to perform, treat them like responsible adults. Let them set their own work-life priorities.

Fast Company senior editor Keith Hammonds explored those ideas in a panel discussion for the annual conference of Catalyst, a research and advocacy nonprofit for women in business. The question at hand: Does the high-tech industry propose a better way of thinking about work-life issues? The participants: Anne Perlman, executive chairman of Moai Technologies Inc., a San Francisco e-commerce software company; Ben Binswanger, vice president of corporate relations at AOL Time Warner; and Debra Meyerson, professor at Simmons College and Stanford University.

Hammonds: Everything we hear about the high-tech world says that it’s distinctly not a family-friendly environment — that everyone is 25 and single, and works around the clock. Is that true?

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Meyerson: The first thing you learn in high-tech is that there’s no one culture. There are many, and they look no more like each other than they look like standard brick-and-mortar companies. The notion that everyone in Silicon Valley works 20 hours a day and inhales Fritos is mostly a giant myth. In some companies, it’s very real — but I’ve been amazed by a couple of small startups where, in many departments, people have incredibly sane lives. These people are primarily twentysomethings, and work-life weighs very heavily on their minds. They are going home at 5:30 and, in many cases, are getting in at the crack of 9. We’ve also witnessed bigger companies where people are working all the time.

Hammonds: But isn’t there a relationship between long hours and competitiveness? Part of AOL’s lore is that it got where it did because its people worked insanely hard.

Binswanger: There was a time when that was real. A couple of years ago, there was a culture that involved staying at work 60 or 70 hours a week. But that kind of culture is changing. Over time, it’s not a sustainable model for running a business. When AOL merged with Netscape, we looked at cultural issues there. We found that after five years, Netscape employees had the opportunity to take sabbaticals — and that they used the time to figure out that there may be something else in their lives besides work! Now AOL is thinking more about how to empower employees with choices that allow them to achieve balance in their lives, so that AOL can get more out of those employees.

Hammonds: Moai is basically in startup mode, still trying to establish itself in the market against much bigger rivals. Don’t you want your people, on some level, to be insane?

Perlman: We really don’t. It’s true: Moai is going against larger companies with more funding and more marketing visibility. We’re just a small, private company. But we want employees to have sustainable work models. So how do we translate organizational speed in a way that’s sustainable? We do a lot of goal setting, but we don’t tell employees how to achieve those goals. Performance is expected. But we don’t want performance to lead to insanity, to too much work, and to not enough stability to keep people happy.

Frankly, Moai’s founders have better balance than I do, and that’s obvious to everyone at the company. I travel all the time, and I send email in the middle of the night. That’s not the example I want people to follow. And it’s not the policy I have. We try to create a culture that encourages balance, but it’s always slightly embarrassing that I don’t live what we preach, because I am watched.

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Hammonds: So your work-life strategy is simply to set a tone that recognizes that people have lives — rather than writing rules that dictate terms of work. That can work if the workplace is a meritocracy. So the question is, Is Silicon Valley truly a meritocracy?

Meyerson: In Silicon Valley, there’s certainly a strong myth that a meritocracy exists. But it’s important to differentiate between smaller companies and larger ones. In startup cultures, which tend to be very results-oriented, there is much more evidence of a meritocracy. But the big Valley companies that have been around for a while look remarkably similar to traditional brick-and-mortar companies. I’ve been surprised at how entrenched they are.

Hammonds: So how do we think about work-life in this environment? Is there, in fact, a new model?

Meyerson: I think that Silicon Valley has been ahead of the game in terms of flexibility, telecommuting, and experimenting with hours. But if you ask people what they really want, it’s control. I haven’t seen flexibility translate into control in people’s lives. How do we change that?

Binswanger: AOL tries to emphasize both individual needs and team goals. Then it’s the employees’ responsibility to determine how they’re going complete their work assignments. Managers aren’t so focused on how employees’ are going to do something.

Hammonds: So maybe the new model is no model at all?

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Binswanger: That’s what managers would like to drive toward. It doesn’t work in every case, but that’s what we strive for. The company supplies programs that employees can take advantage of, but whether they take advantage of them is their decision.

Meyerson: But there’s a pro and con to the “no-policy” policy. The pro is that it normalizes flexible work schedules, making it easier for people to use that flexibility without stigmatizing themselves. And we see lots of evidence in Silicon Valley, for example, of men working part-time without compromising their careers. But the downside is that there’s the potential for such practices to have a different impact on women than they do on men. If companies aren’t true meritocracies, and women have an extra burden of proof, then the flexibility of a no-policy policy may not play out the same.

Binswanger: I’m not sure what the answer is. People are still judged on the merits of their work. But the difference is that we’re not going to judge them on whether they’re sitting at their desks from 9 to 7.