Workplace Flexibility and the Virtual Baby

I was at the Work & Family Researchers Network conference recently when someone mentioned the idea of a "virtual baby."

What exactly does that mean?

It goes back to the common struggle my clients face over how to support employees with family care needs in such a way that doesn't feel unfair to employees who don't have dependent-care responsibilities.

Working Parents vs. the Rest of the Workforce

People without kids are justifiably resentful when they are always the last ones at the meeting, taking all the follow-up assignments because all the people with kids had to leave to pick up their children.

"Everyone has legitimate reasons to leave right at five, and I'm left holding the ball," is a common complaint.

Parents are equally frustrated. "I have to be out the door by 5:30 to get my daughter," said a parent at a client I visited recently,  "but I always get dirty looks from my co-workers who will be staying until 6:00 and just don't understand."

In workplaces where long hours are the norm, this problem is intensified.

Flex Time for All Employees

My clients are constantly looking for ways to support working parents and make it "okay" for them to do whatever they need to do to take care of their families. But it gets complicated when that supportiveness creates a chasm between parents and non-parents and impacts morale.

While many employers will tell me that they want to support people's priorities outside of work family and otherwise it's clearly easier to talk about workplace flexibility for family responsibilities than it is to talk about flexibility for the universe of other things that may matter to people. And that's where that virtual baby comes in.

A Great Tool for Supporting Flexibility

Back at that conference, someone made a passing reference to the notion that everyone should be allowed to have a "virtual baby" an avatar, if you will, that represents whatever responsibilities might require flexibility at the office.  Yours may be an actual baby; mine might be training for a marathon; Laura's might be volunteering at the pet shelter; Andrew's might be mentoring to a local teen.

All of these are perfectly relevant "dependents;" they're just couched under a symbol that makes them all equal.

I think this idea has great potential as a tool for clarifying the rules about flexibility. It shows the organization doesn't judge priorities outside of work for what they are. Instead, they provide equitable workplace flexibility for all, with the caveat that all work has to get done. If people are performing well, they can claim all the flexibility they need without feeling that one employee's children is a more legit "excuse" than Andrew's teen mentee.

Empowering Employees to Work Well

The question that comes to my mind: Can I have virtual triplets?  In my organization the answer would be "yes." At Bright Horizons, we're good at measuring performance based on outcome rather than face time. That's a key to success. I know that it's not practical for all kinds of jobs. But I see a lot of room to move toward this kind of performance-based management. The rewards are employees who work well because they feel empowered to take care of whatever responsibilities they need to.

All this time we've thought we needed an improved system to do this better. But what do they say about "Out of the mouths of babes?" Maybe virtual babies can help us all.