Like millions of Canadian parents in the work force, I am all-too familiar with the challenges of juggling corporate life and family life. In my last role at a busy advertising agency, maintaining this delicate balance was like trying to get my three-year-old to eat a plate of asparagus. Every night, the drill at work was the same. At around 5:15 p.m. – 15 minutes after my workday had ‘technically’ ended – I would log off my computer and get ready to clock-out for the evening. In making my way toward the door, I could practically feel my skin heat up from my coworkers’ accusing stares. “You’re leaving already?” their looks seemed to ask. “We’ll be here until 7!”
Being the only employee to finish ‘early’ felt uncomfortable, and I was never completely confident in the safety of my position. For fear of being caught abandoning the rest of my team, I would often go into stealth-mode and sneak past my boss’s office on the way out. Childish, I know. But as a working mother, what else could I do? While the rest of my childless colleagues had the freedom to camp out all night at the office, I had a son to pick up from daycare and a full night of parenting ahead. Putting in tons of extra time just wasn’t (and still isn’t) an option. Though I’d clearly stated my unique lifestyle requirements in my interview – and was assured that there would be no issues surrounding them – I began to get the distinct feeling that this was not really the case. Over time, I began to feel that I was the company’s weakest link, all because I had a little boy who needed me at home.
Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you’re fully committed to your job, but when it comes to working overtime, your parenting obligations just don’t allow it. Should this make you a less valuable employee? And are there ways that working parents can prove themselves indispensible in the hours that they are able to work?
Finding a company that’s willing to work around your parenting needs isn’t always easy, but according to Christine Thomlinson, an employment lawyer at Rubin Thomlinson LLP in Toronto, being upfront and honest about your situation at the interview stage is the best place to start.
“Legally, a person doesn’t have any obligation to tell her potential employer that she has children – and the employer isn’t allowed to ask those questions. But practically speaking, if you know you have certain restrictions on your ability to perform the job in any way, I would bring them up. It’s kind of like dating. If you mislead your prospective partner about who you are, that’s just going to lead to problems down the road. Candidates have an opportunity at the interview to present their information in a positive light.” For example, if you have to leave at 5 p.m. to pick up your children from daycare, you could note other ways in which you are able to show you’re committed and able to work hard, such as answering emails in the evenings.
So, what if you’ve opened the lines of communication but still feel discriminated against because of your family status?
“We see these cases a lot; someone comes in and says, ‘I was up for a promotion, but my colleague got it instead of me and I’ve always felt that because I have a family, I’m not given the same opportunities,’ ” says Christine. “And that may be true. There may be a legitimate complaint to be made to the appropriate Human Rights authority. But sometimes when we investigate, we find that the colleague had an academic credential that our client lacked, and when their educational credentials were measured one against the other, the colleague was a superior candidate.”
So you’ve managed to leave work at a decent hour in order to pick your child up from daycare. Now comes the traffic. An accident and rainstorm later, you arrive late – and have been charged significant late fees because of it. The next day, childcare arrangements have you stressed out again. You get a call halfway through your day saying your child is sick and needs to be taken home. You leave for the day but your boss isn’t impressed. If only you had other options.
As a working parent, you know that these and other issues can often arise. Luckily, many corporations are moving toward on-site childcare facilities to make the work/family balance easier for their employees. One such childcare centre is Kids & Company, whose facilities are located in office buildings. Parents can drop their children off then take the elevator to work, and pick them up on their way down. They can even visit their child during the day.
Businesses interested in Kids & Company pay an annual fee, and their employees pay to utilize the full- or part-time services. Back-up care is even available for parents needing service when their regular childcare falls through. Employees feel better knowing that their child is being taken care of, and employers feel better knowing their employees are focused on work, not childcare concerns. The best part for parents is there are none of the late fees you’d typically find with other daycare centres.
“We fully understand the daily pressures of working parents, including traffic problems, bad weather, and meetings that run late,” says Linda Starr, Director of Sales and Marketing at Kids & Company. “We don’t believe in late fees that tend to add even more pressure to a parent’s day.”
Victoria Sopik, CEO of Kids & Company, came up with the idea for her company following her own mothering experiences. As a mother of eight children, Victoria knows first-hand the complexities of making child-care arrangements that adapt to working parents’ busy lives.
“I’m in constant contact with parents and balancing my professional responsibilities with the realities of raising a family,” she says. “The concern that I hear over and over again is that there is limited quality childcare and no emergency back-up when regular care arrangements fall through.”
A Radical Approach
One company that has completely shiftedthe way parents are able to balance family and career is ATB Investor Services, a fullservice financial institution headquartered in Edmonton. About a year ago, ATB rolled out a comprehensive plan that gives employees the freedom to choose where they work and when. They aren’t chained to a cubicle or measured by how much “face time” they put in at the office. So long as they’re getting their work done and are meeting business objectives, they can virtually set their own schedules.
“There’s considerable research around the fact that people are their most productive and deliver the best results when they have the autonomy to figure out how and when they deliver those results,” says Sheldon Dyck, President of ATB Investor Services. “There’s very little correlation between the hours you sit in an office chair and how productive you are. Different people can be very productive from different environments, and at different times of the day.”
ATB offers three basic modules for employees:
Most people will incorporate all three modules at different points of their work week, and are not restricted to any one approach.
“We call this business model ‘Workplace 2.0’ because we believe it’s a quantum shift in how people work,” says Sheldon. “A big opportunity we see with this approach is that it reduces or even eliminates commuting time, which is one of the biggest sources of dissatisfaction in many people’s lives. It’s a giant vacuum that sucks our time, and there’s very little reason for it anymore, at least in work environments like ours. By taking commuting out of the picture, people are no longer sitting unproductive in gridlock, away from their families.” And racking up daycare late fees.
While ATB’s flexible work approach has been appreciated by all employees, Sheldon describes how its impact on parents has been especially noticeable.
“We have lots of single parents and immigrants on our team who were taking a couple buses and a C-Train to get to work each day and had to find two different kinds of childcare to cover their commuting time. Now they’re actually having meals with their kids instead of getting home late, having to be rushed, doing fast-food. They’re on the verge of tears when they tell me the difference that it’s made in their lives – the guilt that is removed about constantly feeling like they couldn’t have a career and be a good parent. Now they can do both. The financial implications for people are significant too. They can save thousands of dollars in commuting costs and additional childcare, as well as the coordination and stress that goes into those things.”
Not surprisingly, word has gotten around that ATB is a family-friendly place to work – it was named one of Canada’s 50 best employers in Report on Business magazine – and the resumes have been pouring in.
“There are a couple members of my executive team who are very successful women; some of the most sought-after in their role in their industry. They chose to work for us because they can have a career and have a family and not feel like they’re giving up something to do that.”
While some might assume that too much freedom could lead to a decline in productivity, Sheldon says the opposite has been the case.
“In the year after we implemented this approach, we had our best year of results ever and our stocks were up almost 40 percent. There are lots of things that drive this, but certainly, people are responding with very high levels of productivity. We measure engagement of our people and it’s at its highest level ever.”
Being the ultimate employee and the ultimate parent takes work, and it will test you both physically and emotionally. So before you take on the challenge, be clear on what you want and take the time to search out companies truly foster a work-life balance. If family is your priority, make sure your employer respects and accommodates your needs as a parent. True, times are tough and jobs might be hard to come by. But if there’s stress at the office there will be stress at home. Do yourself and your family a favour by choosing the position that’s right for you.
How to avoid burnout
At a recent Women of Influence lunch in Toronto, Ariana Huffington (founder of the Huffington Post) dispelled the notion that worklife balance is possible. It implies equality and “there are days when work will weigh more and days when family will weigh more.”Since fainting from exhaustion in the early days of running her business (and injuring herself badly), Ariana has adjusted her priorities. For one, Huffington Post workplaces are all equipped with nap rooms. Ariana also insists on getting seven or eight hours of sleep herself. “I had dinner with a man recently who was bragging that he only had four hours of sleep the night before. I thought to myself, ‘this dinner would be a lot more interesting if he had had five!’”
Renae’s Story: When a mat leave changes everything
When Renae went on maternity leave with her first child four years ago, she was confident that when she returned, things at work would be exactly how she’d left them. In fact, she was even hopeful for a new position within the company. She had worked at the construction management company for six years and had always been a dedicated, valued employee. Her boss often talked of ‘the importance of family,’ so she was sure that being a mom wouldn’t jeopardize her career.
Fast forward just a few months and things weren’t so picture-perfect. Upon returning from mat leave – five months early – Renae’s dedication to the job was suddenly challenged.
“I was told by another employee that they were concerned about my ability to take on responsibility,” Renae recalls. They worried I might have children’s doctor’s appointments and leave on time to go home. The family atmosphere that I left going into maternity leave quickly vanished as I returned. It just wasn’t a nice place to be anymore and it never felt like they were okay with me being a mom.”
Prior to her mat leave, her boss had allowed her to work from home two days a week to avoid the hour-long
commute, and to shift her workday hours to beat
traffic. Not anymore.
“They took the flex hours away,” she says. “Even if I came in at 6 a.m., they needed me to stay until 4:30 p.m.”
Renae’s story has a happy ending. It didn’t take long for her to get recruited by another construction management company, one that is truly family-friendly. Now she is Chief Estimator and Project Manager at work, and Wife and Mom-of-three at home.
“This company is fantastic,” says Renae of her current employer. “Not only do they love my kids, but they still encourage me to have more! They are very understanding of all the regular children’s appointments and sicknesses.
“They truly believe that family should come before work. I am able to work from home as I need to and can flex my hours. I have brought the kids into the office and they enjoy that. We all work together to make everything work for each other. I get my work done and make myself available when they need me.”
Nicole McPherson is a health and lifestyle writer in Burlington, Ont. She balances a full-time marketing job and freelance writing with her young son’s budding hockey career.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2013.