A number of years ago, during a period of my career where I had been burning the midnight oil for weeks on end, I reached a tipping point that scared me. A point where I came perilously close to backflipping from a highly engaged, focused executive delivering on the outcomes the business needed, to a disengaged employee touching up my resume and booking coffee meetings with search firms to explore ‘what’s next’ on company time.
The tipping point wasn’t due to over-work, in fact quite the contrary. I was enjoying working hard, had plenty more gas in the tank, and I passionately believed in what I was doing. It was due to an interaction with the organisational culture I was operating in at the time. The organisational culture valued high performance but, at that point in time, it also valued “presenteeism” – it seemed hard work only counted if the hard work was done in the office.
For me, this realisation came at a time when my wife and I were juggling the pressures of having demanding jobs and two kids under the age of two. One of them had been ill for a few days, and my wife had taken time out of her business to look after the sick child. On this particular day, my wife had a number of client engagements, and I happened to have a diary free of external meetings. As so many modern families do, we negotiated that morning who was best placed to work from home to look after our daughter. On that day, it was my turn.
I could have very well called the office and taken a carer’s leave day – I had weeks and weeks of leave up my sleeve as I never utilised sick days.
But because I so was so driven to achieve, so engaged in what I was doing, I desperately wanted to complete a proposal I had been working on. It would only take me about half the day, and I could manage this while my daughter slept or watched a Wiggles DVD.
So I called the office and explained the situation and that I’d be working a half day from home to get this proposal out the door.
The response, which is sadly still indicative of many organisations today, was, “Can’t your wife look after your daughter?”
In a millisecond, this question evoked an emotional reaction within me. I was incredulous that I was suddenly being asked to explain and justify why it was me, and not my wife, that needed to stay at home.
It was clear from the conversation that our culture, at the time, regarded working from home as some form of leave day (be it sick leave, carer’s leave, or annual leave). We did value performance, but were blinded by the obsession with “being present”.
Our culture lived inside a dated paradigm of “output is quantified by the amount of time spent behind the desk”, and if “I can’t see you then you’re not working”.
I was confused, angry and stressed that I was being asked to choose either my family or work (and that I could not choose both) and that I was not trusted to deliver from home. Suddenly, in that impossible moment, I realised that I was at a fork in the road in terms of my employment; I could either “change my employer” (resulting in my resignation) or “change my employer” (resulting in a change to our culture).
Did our Executive Team (of which I was a part) really realise the impact our obsession with “time at desk” could have on team members’ engagement? Certainly not. Not until I experienced it first-hand. It was clear to me how frighteningly easy it was to turn a highly productive employee (focused on completing a proposal to grow our business) into a disengaged passenger (looking for a new job) – in a matter of seconds. My personal tipping point also became a tipping point for the culture of our business.
Now, years down the track, I am grateful for that interaction. It crystallised for me the fact that flexibility is not some new age employee perk, but a fundamental strategic imperative in today’s modern world. The interaction was a key event in our organisation’s history, a catalyst in evolving our culture to adopt flexibility and use it as an asset. We still value high performance … and we use flexibility (and the employee engagement that follows) to drive it.
I am very proud to be part of an executive team that “looked the facts of our culture in the face” and was prepared to make steps into the unknown to improve it.
At a personal level, I resolved to myself that I would never force an employee to choose their family or their health over their work. At a professional level, I am proud to say that the organisation I work for supports me, and all our staff, with this resolution.
In order to engage the hearts and minds of our people, we must accept that ‘life happens’, and that we can make work fit around life. And it’s not just about parents with kids… it’s about employees with ageing parents, drivers with long commutes, people that have other commitments outside of work, the list goes on… It’s about life, of which work is but one part.
By granting our employees trust and allowing them the freedom to deal with life and their jobs in a way that delivers the best outcomes for both, we nurture employees who are engaged in their work, and people who are engaged in their lives, to achieve better business outcomes and a better society in general.