Let's 'leave loudly' this International Women's Day
THE FLEXPERTS: Encouraging flexible work requires more than just rewriting the rules. Culture change is needed to overcome the stigma.
This is the first in a series of regular articles which will examine issues around workplace flexibility and gender equality.
The Flexperts are: Dr Sue Williamson, senior lecturer in human resource management at UNSW Canberra and Dr Meraiah Foley, research fellow at UNSW Canberra.
Staying late at work is often worn as a badge of honour. Recently, some forward-thinking executives have begun to challenge this view, proving that small innovations can have a big impact.
Robbert Rietbroek, CEO of PepsiCo Australia & New Zealand, began ‘leaving loudly‘, a campaign which calls on managers to leave work at a reasonable hour and encourage their staff to do so as well.
Many public servants have told us that their senior managers are also adopting this practice. This simple act may not seem like such a big deal. But scratch the surface and we can see it is important for two reasons.
First, when executives leave loudly, they send a signal to employees that working late is not a proxy for commitment to the job. This is important, as employees who use flexible or non-standard work practices often report feeling stigmatised for operating outside the grain. Furthermore, research shows that when senior executives adopt and support human resource policies, organisational support for those initiatives becomes more embedded.
Secondly, leaving loudly encourages clearer boundaries between work and home life. Having an identified break is important to maintain wellbeing and productivity. In a world of increasing connectedness, leaving at a reasonable hour demonstrates that it is time to attend to outside commitments.
PepsiCo has another innovative practice to increase workplace flexibility — ‘one simple thing’. This is a personal activity which is essential to wellbeing and work-family integration, prioritised and enabled by employees working flexibly. Similarly, we are aware of at least one APS leader who introduced a similar concept of non-negotiables such as uninterrupted family meal times or weekend sporting events. Non-negotiables will not be forfeited due to work needs.
While people may be leaving loudly and enjoying their non-negotiables, many employees get back to work after the kids have been collected from school or after dinner. A US study of 1000 employees found that more than 60% of men and almost half of women send work emails after 9pm. That’s likely to represent a lot of people working a lot of extra hours.
So, what can be done about this? Last year the French government enacted new legislation requiring companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or receive emails. Such regulation enshrines the right of workers to disconnect and places a much-needed brake on the blurring of work and home lives.
Organisations need not wait for the heavy hand of regulation. In 2014, German auto-maker Daimler adopted an innovative solution to the problem of holiday emails. The emails sent to employees who are on annual leave are automatically deleted. Senders receive a polite email informing them of this fact and providing them with an alternative contact to answer their query. Initial reports suggest the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Such practices recognise the need for people to completely disconnect from work. They also help to ensure that employees and managers are not subtly penalised for taking time off by returning to an overflowing Inbox.
Strong organisational leadership can change workplace culture by embracing the use of soft power: relying on persuasion and attraction to encourage behaviour change, rather than compliance. Soft power also sits well with notions of inclusive leadership, which, as we talk to employees and employers in both private and public sectors, is becoming firmly embedded in organisations.
So, this International Women’s Day, public sector leaders might consider ways they can use their soft power to role model healthier work behaviours. Let’s celebrate by doing ‘one simple thing’ and leaving loudly, to the benefit of us all.