The verdict has been in for some time now: A 2013 study shows that flexibility in the workplace is a top priority for workers, with 66% of Millennials saying they’d like to shift their hours outside of the standard 9-to-5 (though the idea that anyone leaves work at 5 anymore seems laughable, and that probably speaks to the problem). And it’s not just the young folk; while the term “flex economy” is veritable catnip to this generation, it’s something older generations want, too–they just haven’t made much of a fuss about it up to this point; across the board, the PricewaterhouseCoopers study showed that 15% of male employees and 22% of female employees would accept a slower pace of raises and promotions in exchange for more flexible hours.
For most, however, a flexible job setup is still thought of as a plush job perk, in the same category as popcorn machines and office dogs. It’s a handy tool the lucky ones are handed, put to use in pursuit of that mythological creature known as “work-life balance” that has increasingly disappeared as we’ve become a generation obsessed with the idea of shaping our dream careers. But are we undermining how important flexibility really is?
The co-founders of flexible-job platform Werk answer that question with an emphatic yes. Launched last March by Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean, Werk has set out to reimagine what flexibility in the workplace means—not because they think the right to wear the same yoga pants for four days straight is important, but because it’s absolutely essential to closing the gender pay gap. It’s a complex issue with lots of contributing factors falling under the umbrella of systemic sexism and racism, but recent research has solidified what many have been arguing for decades: Getting married and having kids come at the expense of the woman’s career because women still assume the bulk of the labor when it comes to the house and taking care of the kids. This is true even if women are working the same (or more) hours as their partner, and whether they choose to work less or not after they have kids. The general perception in our work culture is that one way or another, the demands of domestic labor are going to interfere with the a woman’s in-office performance, and so they don’t get the raise and they don’t get the promotion.
It’s a pervasive problem, and it’s something Annie—a corporate real estate attorney at the time—experienced firsthand:
“I had every good opportunity. I was being groomed for leadership. But after I got pregnant, my commitment was openly questioned. After my child was born and I returned to work, my opportunities just arbitrarily vanished. And what was really challenging for me is that I was working 16 or 18 hours a day, multiple days in a row, and days would go by that I wouldn’t even see my son during waking hours. I felt like all the energy I had in my body was being used to just make my cells divide, much less manage weaning a child off of breastfeeding and advancing my career—and God forbid—taking care of myself.
So, I had this moment where I was like, if this is happening to me, and there’s no future for me here, what is happening to all of the other women in all of the other desks in America right now?”
And so she and Anna—a former McKinsey consultant, Harvard Business School grad and now mother to a three-year-old-son—set out to change that. Werk is a job-search platform for “ambitious job seekers looking for real opportunities,” aimed at VPs, managers and director-types who are poised to progress to executive positions but are being forced out by an unaccommodating work culture once they decide to have kids. Since its launch, Werk has worked with 180 companies to post over 200 jobs that offer a range of flexible options, with 100% remote, minimal travel, flexible hours or part-time being among the stipulations.
Annie stresses that the key is to changing our work culture is understanding flexible job setups are not a luxury but a necessity: “[The current job marketplace] is fundamentally incompatible with the way our lives look, and if we don’t have a future, then what does that mean for women ultimately reaching positions of leadership?” Earlier this month, in what the New York Times refers to as “an unusually personal speech,” Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen cited paid maternity leave, affordable childcare and flexible work schedules as significant factors that would lift the economy from years of slow growth; the conversation is happening, but will it be enough?
TBD on whether corporate America will get on board
Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer drew loads of criticism for killing the company’s much-loved work-from-home policy, citing a loss of collaboration and innovation from workers that were not physically present. A month later, a study released by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office showed fairly widespread misreporting on hours put in by work-from-home employees. But Annie remains confident that it’s not only a viable solution for companies, but a necessary one; it just requires a little training on behalf of employers and employees in order to ensure the work is getting done: “We want our users to be as educated as possible about how to use these types of policies effectively, so we teach them how to use business-first communication and put their [flexibility] needs in the context of a business’s bottom line. That way, it’s never taken as a lifestyle perk, which I think is a problem that we see quite commonly today,” Annie explains.
As for the employers: “We teach companies to have a results-based management style where you’re identifying what employees’ actual goals are, and then empowering the employees to achieve those goals. And that’s just better management style overall. As companies learn that it’s a strategic benefit to their bottom line, we’re gonna see this work out very quickly. Employees are doing 100 percent of the scope of that job. They’re just doing it in a slightly modified way.”
Companies currently offering job listings at Werk include Birchbox, Buffer and MM LaFleur, listing positions such as Director of Recruiting and Senior Associate Manager, and Werk is confident that companies committed to retaining top female talent and closing the gender pay gap will continue to get on board. But for all the promise that this shift in thinking shows, what about women who aren’t currently positioned to rise above middle management? What about women who are lower-level employees and thus facing even greater financial barriers to balancing childcare with work? “We want companies to trust the employees and make sure the employees who are using flexibility today are the employees that can handle the results-based management and really excel at it, so that ultimately their success creates more opportunity for different levels of employees in the future. So this is where we’re starting, and as we see the adoption increase and the success rates increase, then we can consider operating at other levels of education and experience,” Annie explains.
In a country where paid maternity leave is somehow still not a thing, changing the conversation around the ways we support (and utterly fail to support) women in the workplace has proven to be difficult. But if Werk’s message and methods continue to be fruitful, and the data shows it’s what we all really want anyway, looks like it’s high time to start thinking about dusting off those work-from-home stretch pants and scheduling a chat with the top brass.