Wednesday 17 October 2012

Why it's okay to take a work call in pyjamas

Working from home is the most effective way to ease stress, end traffic jams and make everyone immediately happier and so more productive and profitable, says Harvard Business School don Rosabeth Moss Kanter.
By Cheong Suk Wai, The Straits Times, 16 Oct 2012

WORKING women can successfully juggle marriage and motherhood with meeting work targets - provided they accept that they cannot catch all these balls all the time.

That is Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter's take on work-life balance.

In an interview with The Straits Times here earlier this month, Prof Kanter, who is married with a grown-up son, said: "The house doesn't have to be totally clean and it's okay for the kids to understand that sometimes, the parent has something else to do.

"If we can let go a little bit and decide what's really important, then women can have it all."

Prof Kanter, 69, was here for a day to speak at the Singapore National Cooperative Federation (SNCF)'s regional conference to mark this year as the International Year of Cooperatives, as the United Nations has dubbed it.

She stressed that resisting perfectionism does not mean rejecting high standards, but that "best is the enemy of good" and so good enough is mostly, well, good enough.

As it is, the Times of London reported on Sept 30 that New York's Centre for Talent Innovation found that 40 per cent of educated women born between 1965 and 1975 are childless mainly because they "wanted to do one thing well" rather than juggle meetings, marriage and motherhood.

Prof Kanter said most people in a workplace will continue to fall into "the perfection trap" unless their bosses make "good enough" the new ethos, by changing the way they worked.

For now, only a few companies such as IBM, Procter & Gamble and Publicis Groupe help their employees juggle everything.

Ms Mona Arishi, for example, became the first woman to breastfeed in an office in Egypt when IBM allowed her to do so, noted Prof Kanter. IBM even hired a driver to ferry her and her new baby to and from the office post-maternity leave.

But at a time so enabled by technology, Prof Kanter wondered why it is that mothers like Ms Arishi have to go in to work at all.

The dulcet-voiced don said being able to work from home will ultimately ease workers' stress because it will solve traffic, environmental and family problems caused by clashing schedules. Being in better control of one's time against diverse demands would also result in happier, harder-working folk, she added.

The new buzz phrase for this, the Times of London report said, is "work-life merge" and Prof Kanter acknowledged that the risk of such flexibility is that the boundaries between work and the rest of life will blur. But she said that is the trade-off if telecommuting is to work.

"If you as an employee have to take conference calls while on vacation, that isn't always an interruption because it's a way for you to keep things going at work," she pointed out.

She then mused: "Our concept of the workplace hasn't caught up with the needs of modern society or what tools today enable us to do... Virtual work has to be valued and rewarded. It has to be featured in the media. It has to be socially desirable."

Such a social desire is ultimately good for business too.

The US independent research and consultancy firm Global Workplace Analytics, which monitors flexi-work trends, recently estimated that the 30 million or so virtual workers in the US today could yield a total of six million more man years of work and boost productivity gains from US$334 billion (S$408 billion) to US$467 billion.

Workplaces in Singapore are buying into the value of virtual work. Last week, recruitment firm Robert Half released results of its survey of employers in 13 countries on flexi-work. The survey showed that 87 per cent of employers here, or almost nine in 10 or them, were in favour of flexible working arrangements, better than the global average of 79 per cent.

Still, 48 per cent of employers surveyed worried that telecommuters' productivity would drop due to lack of supervision. To that, Prof Kanter said people can easily be taught how to demonstrate "face time" without seeing their bosses in person. That includes e-mailing bosses regularly with good ideas and requests to contribute in other ways, and keeping the relationship going through well-timed phone calls.

In a career that took off when she began teaching at Harvard Business School in 1986, Prof Kanter has been named one of the world's top 50 most powerful women, being one of the few women to be universally acclaimed as a management guru.

Warm, vocal and driven by solid good sense, she is best known for her work on innovation, change management and empowering employees, especially women.

She has also advised various government ministries here through the years and was once on the advisory panel for the One North development here. She knows Singapore very well, to the point that she repeatedly declined to comment on any domestic policies that she knows are "sensitive" here. She has also visited Singapore more than five times in the past 10 years to advise and learn from companies based here.

She said what impressed her most about Singapore is "its capacity to evolve", from building an economy from scratch post-Independence to championing social enterprise and exporting its "inherently unlimited" knowledge about how to build a city like Singapore.

She said: "Singapore will continue to evolve because it is good at learning, recognising problems and then saying what we can all do about them."

That is entirely in keeping with the core of her work, which is the belief that everyone should be enabled such that they make the best of their lives.

It is in this vein that she expressed what she knows to be an "unpopular" view among Singaporeans today - that the Republic should remain as open to immigrants as it was five years ago.

She said: "I know this is a debate here and on one of my recent trips here, I was listening to people's concerns about ethnic communities and immigration.

"But it's not just about raising children. We need to move the populations of the world around because that would benefit the world."

Also, she added, she is against encouraging people to have more children if that means "women will not live up to their own choices and potential".

That said, she exulted that more working women, in general, are not only smashing the glass ceiling but helping other women to the top as well.

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