Readers of my Work+Life Fit Blog shared my eighteen month work+life fit journey caring for my mother until her death from lung cancer this past July. The heartfelt emails I received from readers included their own personal eldercare experiences as well as surprising remarks about the courage I showed by sharing my story. And once again, I was reminded how difficult it is for most of us to share our work+life fit realities and choices, often at great cost.
Writing about my struggle of manage a full-time job, two children, a husband, and a sick mother whom I loved dearly wasn’t an act of courage. It was about survival and the search for a common understanding of experience and support. But for many of the people who reached out to me with their stories, that honesty was an act of bravery.
Why do stories matter? Because until we talk about how we’ve responded to work and personal transitions that challenged us to rethink our fit, the illusions that workplaces don’t need to be flexible and that careers are still linear will remain. Only when we begin to tell the truth about how we are really working and managing our personal responsibilities and choices will more meaningful managerial, individual, and cultural change occur.
But we don’t say anything! I can’t tell you how many times the following scenario has occurred when I’ve gone into a company to help develop a flexibility strategy. First, the leader who hired me explains that only a small percentage of their employees work flexibly. Then, when I start talking to individual managers and employees I find that a much larger number of people have creatively adjusted where, when, or how they work in order to manage their fit. But the “company” doesn’t know about it. Why?
First, the individuals with the flexibility often don’t want to say anything, “I don’t want to call attention to this great thing I have and maybe lose it.” The assumption being that he or she is the only one working differently from everyone else so, “shhhhh.”
Second, people are afraid it will hurt their career to be perceived as not following the standard work model or career path. This is especially true for men. In our 2006 Work+Life Fit Reality Check survey, we found men significantly more likely to cite, “I’m afraid what others will think” as the reason they don’t pursue flexibility. And if they do have flexibility, they don’t want to talk about it. The same holds true for women.
Inevitably my corporate clients are shocked to learn about the wonderful examples of successful flexibility that already exist in their organizations. And that success prompts an even greater corporate level comfort, as well as commitment to capture, scale, operationalize, and optimize a mutually-beneficial flexibility process (not policy) more broadly. But it’s not until those stories of how flex worked for the individual and the organization come to light, that the old paradigms of what work and careers should look like are challenged.
One of my favorite examples happened when I encouraged a friend who was going to quit a job she’d loved for over 15 years to present a proposal for flexibility before she left. To her shock, not only was her plan approved immediately but her boss said, “Oh, I did the same thing ten years ago.” Afterwards, my friend said, “It might have been nice if she’d shared the fact that she used flexibility during her career, maybe then I wouldn’t have come so close to quitting. I would have known there was another option!”
If I, as a work+life “fit” expert, have the courage to share my story with the world, then I urge everyone to consider taking the risk and talk with others. Your story about how you creatively used flexibility to manage your work+life fit in a way that met your needs as well as the needs of the business can not only help you find support, but it can move all of us further toward embracing new ways to work and chart our careers.