What is a positive workplace?

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Walking a tightrope between work and family

HOW do you have a career with the same company for almost 30 years and raise five wonderful children at the same time?


The answer, in my aunt’s case, seems to be: Find the right employer.

Aunty Mee started work with Hewlett Packard (HP) in the 1970s, took on various roles over three decades and retired in her late 50s.

HP is widely credited as one of the earliest adopters of flexi-time work arrangement (FWA), implementing it in the United States as early as 1972.

So I asked Aunty Mee if having “rubber time”, as she put it, helped with her work life balance.
“Definitely. It allowed me to go according to the kids’ schedules,” she said.

Even today, it seems inconceivable to me that any job would permit one to “go according to the kids’ schedules”.

I mean, what would the shareholders say?

I am certain I am not alone in my skepticism.

Even as “flexi-work” becomes the buzzword in manpower and talent management, both employees and employers are not exactly jumping into it.

Yet.

Eleven years ago, as my husband and I waited with bated breath for our firstborn, I decided to quit my job at Channel NewsAsia.

I wanted to be sure my son – the first male of his generation, phew - had my full attention.

The Big Boss rang me on the phone and said: “We can give you flexibility. What kind of flexibility are you looking at?”

I was stumped.

You see, as a first-time mother to be, I had no idea what kind of flexibility I wanted, or could have, for that matter.

In fact, I saw “flexibility” as “compromise”. That is, me not giving all of myself to my newborn baby or my job.

Back then, the irony was lost on me.

There was my employer, optimistic and happy to share his staff with her family, undeterred that he might not get 110 per cent commitment from me.

And me, skeptical and steadfast in my black or white world.

Then there was the skepticism about part time work.

From an employee’s point of view, part time work can mean full time work with part time pay. I knew intimately that it was hard to walk away from a good story in the newsroom.

So without seriously exploring flexible work options, I left the company and a job I loved.

Do I now regret that decision?

As with most things in life, the answer is: Yes and no.

No, because I have had more time to nurture my kids and witness every step of their development. Technology and experience have also enabled me to continue working, albeit in a different arrangement.

As for regret, American writer Margo Jefferson said it the best: “With regret, you’re mourning ― missing ― something that never was.

“It didn’t happen, and that was because you wouldn’t or couldn’t let it happen.”

I do wish I had given a full-time job a go. I was not exactly doing badly at the news station, and there were still many stories to tell and personalities to interview.

Over the years, I have met many accomplished and interesting women who combine careers with care-giving, and whose children thrive in studies and work.

Stay home moms do not have a monopoly on happy and fulfilled children.

Employees who are at cross roads – like I was back then – owe it to themselves to explore more options.

Employers who face a manpower crunch owe it to their businesses and their staff to make this decision making as meaningful as possible.

Work-life ambassadors or flexi-work champions, for example, can help women make better or more informed decisions.

A tight labor market, ageing population, technological advances, desire for more work-life balance and even falling fertility rates, all exert pressure on companies to adapt quickly.

In these times, a “rubber” mindset will not hurt anyone.

Diana Ser is a former broadcast journalist and the mother of three children aged 11, 9 and 6. She is the also the founder of www.dianaser.com, a website dedicated to helping parents nurture bilingual children.

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