Getting to Equal in the Agile Workplace

How would you feel if you were asked to give up $12,000 of your net salary for the next year? Now imagine you’re a single mom making the median salary of $40,000 for a woman in the US and you’re asked the same thing. Losing over a quarter of your income could result in financial hardship, but that is how much on average full-time daycare for an infant or a toddler costs annually.

Corner Office or the Corner Cube

What about your career path? Imagine taking a couple of 12-week long family leaves over the next five years or so to have your two children, which is typical for an American family. How do you think your absence would impact your trajectory for the corner office, and thus, a higher salary? Also, those leaves are going to be unpaid, so take another 25% out of your annual salary. Add to that the five or more years children need full-time care before they start school, the after-school care they require, summer camps, and the sick days. All that just for the simple fact that you want to work to live a decent life and provide for your family.

This is exactly what women face in the workplace each and every day, many of us single mothers. This is the state of affairs today, on International Women’s Day – a day set aside to celebrate women’s achievements, both in the society and at home.

Rising Together

Accenture, who acquired SolutionsIQ last year, is a proud proponent for equality in the workplace and has an initiative called “Getting to Equal,” which has the dual goals of bringing more equality into the workplace and also increasing the representation of females in Accenture staff to 50%. North American CEO of Accenture, Julie Sweet, has said that, “Our research shows that in companies with cultures that include the workplace factors that help women advance, men thrive too, and we all rise together.”

I want to offer a fresh take on ways that businesses can strive for equality. You may be surprised to learn that Agile mindsets help women, and thus the families that they hold up, to survive and thrive.

Remote Work

Once upon a time (like, just a few of years ago) I worked for a company that allowed employees to work from home one day per week. On one of those remote days, a male executive asked my supervisor if it wasn’t possible for me to come to the office that day since “he knew I kept lots of kids at my house.” My children were 11 and 14 at the time and in school during the day. As I write this article from a remote office in my home far away from my colleagues – all of whom work remotely – I can’t help but laugh at how narrow-minded some people can be.

Working from home doesn’t mean parents abandon their work duties in order to care for their children all day long. If an organization fosters openness and trust, as Agile organizations do, then all employees are motivated to do good work and maintain the integrity of the system, which creates a positive feedback loop. And, in fact, businesses do well to allow flexible work arrangements for all of their employees, because happy people are more productive. Here are two podcasts we released on the topic:

The problem for traditional businesses with remote work is that managers can’t always ensure that their reports are working. There a couple of reasons that this is less a problem in Agile organizations.

  1. If surveillance is necessary, making work transparent and visible using online collaboration and project management tools, and holding virtual daily standups and retrospectives. Tools such as Google Hangouts or Skype for Business allow face-to-face video conferencing, instant messaging and easy visibility into who is available online. Project management tools like Basecamp and LeanKit allow for tracking of work in progress and coordination. Daily standup allows for the manager to keep track of what was accomplished the previous day and what is on the agenda today. And retrospectives allow for a bigger picture view into the success and takeaways of a Sprint or a project.
  2. That being said, micromanagement is the worst way to improve productivity and agility. Instead, managers should focus on creating an environment (both virtual and physical, as the need may be) where productivity and agility can emerge. The same tools mentioned above can enable collaboration, transparency, feedback and more, and may even release management to work on meaningful work beyond just breathing down people’s necks. What I’ve learned is that these same tools make collocated work easier as well, because the workflow UX is seamless.

Flexible Schedule and More PTO

I grew up in a country where maternity leave is about 4 months followed by a parental leave of 8 months, both paid, followed by an optional unpaid child care leave until the child turns three. It’s not utopia, it’s Finland.

So to ask that companies allow a mother to work flexible hours, or to allow more than the 8 days of PTO – the average in the US – isn’t that farfetched to me. Life doesn’t always follow a 9-5 schedule. Parents often have to provide transportation to and from school, leave early for afterschool activities, pick up a sick child, go to doctor’s or any other appointments that take place during the work day. As far as those “vacation days”, for years I spent many of mine caring for sick children (or myself after catching whatever bugs my kids brought home).

When employees are having every hour of productivity squeezed out of them, it doesn’t mean they are actually more productive. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. According to an HBR article, employees in countries that take more vacation do have a strong desire to get a lot done as well as a tendency to move faster.

Agile organizations believe that people are intrinsically motivated. According to an Agile HR leader Fabiola Eyholzer, “They want to do their best job, to be part of a winning team, to collaborate, to create value.” Flexible schedules allow that possibility. Some people may be the most productive early in the morning or late at night, but they meet their goals because they are motivated to do so.

I’ll also mention here that remote work and flexible schedules fit hand in glove. One doesn’t ensure the other, and yet both send a clear message to employees: We trust you to do your job and we respect that life needs tending to, even during the work day.

Getting to Equal

I appreciate what Sheryl Sandberg and others have done to empower women to “lean in” and speak up, but I think it’s time to make sure all women have an equal chance to even get to that conference room in the first place.

We shouldn’t need a partner to rescue us from the financial burden childcare causes. We shouldn’t have to miss a day out of work to stay home with our child when we’re perfectly capable of working remotely for that day. And we certainly shouldn’t miss out on career opportunities just because we have another, equally important job: being a mother.