Is The New Flexibility Still Just Golden Rubber Bands
Lindsay Barnett, Sr Director, HR Business Partner, Kite Pharma
My friend Alison (insert your friend’s name here) has been in her job at the same organization for almost a decade. Sure, the work has some interest for her and takes advantage of her skills and background. But it doesn’t ignite Alison’s passion and connect her with feelings of strength and purpose on a daily basis. However, she’s been there long enough that she can set her own hours and it offers her good benefits and a nice paycheck. Are you already bored by this description of her work life? Well so is Alison and countless other American workers who have sacrificed real meaning at work for a phenomenon that I call the “Golden Rubber Bands”.
Like the proverbial “Golden Handcuffs”, where people feel trapped by the monetary promise of bonuses or stock vesting dates, “Golden Rubber Bands” shackles people with the promise of flexibility. In many workplaces, we see this in action where the job claims to be so supremely flexible that people, predominantly women, are afraid to leave even if they are miserable. Yet often the “take the afternoon off to go to your kid’s baseball game” comes with intermittent emails during the game and other strings attached. So while most managers like to seem magnanimous in their granting of time, there is often little to no actual accommodation given in expectations or deadlines.Indeed, the work still must get done and often does in the afterhours. Or worse, the “time off” is held over one’s head as to the reason why they are not advancing. Unlimited vacation, which seems like a huge benefit, goes untaken for either fear of being seen as less committed or the onslaught of work stress upon return. Working from home was originally romanticized to offer dreamy flexibility, however post-pandemic it has now been coined “living at work” as the lines between work and home have become blurred.
Burnout is often cited as a contributing factor to the Great Resignation and is definitely one of HR’s biggest challenges right now. The pandemic is shifting people like Alison and others to question whether the “Golden Rubber Bands” or even “Golden Handcuffs” are really strong enough to keep them chained to their desks anymore. Yet, I don’t know that leadership and HR are partnering enough to really address the human needs of the people who work for them. Despite all of our advances and the rise of the knowledge worker, the quid pro quo patriarchal mindset of manufacturing days still looms large in how we design the workplace. And employees are watching the “return to work” messaging as a sign of whether companies have really woken up to what modern workers need and want.
“Working From Home Was Originally Romanticized To Offer Dreamy Flexibility, However Post-Pandemic It Has Now Been Coined “Living At Work” As The Lines Between Work And Home Have Become Blurred”
Many companies who survived the pandemic often bragged about productivity improving, rather than decreasing, over the last eighteen months. Yet there is a tremendous cost to that increase and companies would be wise to look at ways to decrease inefficiency, minimize countless meetings and really prioritize actual work before declaring a return to normal. Capacity has two meanings, “the amount something can produce” and “the maximum amount something can contain”. We need to shift away from glamorizing the first definition and get real as to what sustainable work-life balance looks like.
Adding new programs that offer flexibility for commute times or more work from home days alone only reinforces the “Golden Rubber Bands” offering. The literal life and death experiences of the last couple years has reconnected many with their own passions and purpose they are finding harder to keep ignoring. Creative leaders who can find ways to provide opportunities for their team members to leverage their strengths, grow into new experiences and have actual headspace will keep their most innovative players doing what they do best. Instead of anchoring people to set times and places, companies can support employees to feel able to set their own bounce back patterns of work, life and recovery. It is clear there is a new vision of work for a post-pandemic world and the companies that figure out how to truly partner with employees on their needs will undoubtedly be the most successful (or the ones still in business). Alison and I hope to see you there.
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