You could read the recent New York Times article,“’Family Friendly’ White House Is Less So for Aides,” one of two ways. As a commentary on the disconnect between what the Obamas say about managing work and life in the White House and what is actually happening. Or, and perhaps more accurately, as an innovative case study on the possibilities and limits of flexibly managing your work+life fit in a high-pressure organization. Here’s what I think the article has to tell all of us:
Our language needs to catch up with our present-day work+life reality if we are to avoid misunderstandings. Part of the problem with the Obama Administration’s efforts is the language they are using. “Family friendly,” and “balance” are outdated terms that aren’t used by most work life experts because we’ve learned that they don’t accurately describe reality. Think about it, what exactly does “family-friendly” mean? Does it mean mothers, or all parents? Does it include people with eldercare responsibilities? And what about people who consider their pets to be members of their family? And what exactly does “friendly” look like? What looks friendly to me might look very unfriendly to you.
It is much clearer to talk about a flexible work environment that allows people to manage their work and life in a way that meets their needs as well as the needs of the business. Notice I didn’t say “balance.” There is no balance, especially not in a global, 24/7 organization like the White House that’s dealing with a major recession and two wars. So instead of saying the White House is “family-friendly,” President and Mrs. Obama could say, “we support giving people the flexibility they need to manage their important jobs with their responsibilities at home in the context of what it means to work in the White House.”
A leader can set the tone, but he or she can’t give us the answer because our realities are completely different. Kudos to the Obamas for setting the cultural tone related to work+life issues. They freely talk about how they try to manage their work+life fit, which makes it okay for us all to discuss. They encourage the use of laptops to support flexibility (only for parents so far, however, I would advise expanding to everyone as soon as possible), and they walk the talk in a way that works for them. Unlike other aides and staff members, President Obama works from home when he is in the country which does allow him greater, spontaneous access to his family.
While others are still trying to figure out their fit, they report a number of “small wins” such as accompanying a daughter on a field trip, or seeing soccer games. If I could give them all expert advice, it would be to keep focusing on those small, flexible, day-to-day victories. They make a huge difference.
Some are making adjustments to accommodate realities of their high-powered jobs that can’t be changed. In-laws and spouses are taking on more. Additional support is being hired. Babysitters are bringing babies to work for a visit. It might not sound appealing to everyone, but all that matters is it works for them.
Admittedly, there are those that still have a way to go in terms of finding their White House work+life fit. Nighttime school visits and sightseeing aren’t going to work long-term. But, it’s only been seven months, so testing the waters is to be expected; however…
This is a big job with long hours and sometimes it isn’t going to work for everyone. As the article noted, these are “prestigious posts that offer a chance to make an impact and unparalleled access to the President at time of recession and war.” And the work is never, ever going to be done.
These are smart people. They knew what they were getting into. The United States Government is a global, always on, always changing entity that’s currently guiding a country under great stress. Not surprisingly, a couple of staff members have already decided that it wasn’t going to work and have resigned. Maybe they have a child or parent with an unexpected special need. Maybe their partner got a new job. Or, maybe it just wasn’t what they wanted after all. They tried and realized it wasn’t for them, which shouldn’t be an indictment of the entire effort.
While it might not be everyone’s definition of “family-friendly,” there’s no doubt that this White House is much more work+life fit aware and supportive than previous administrations. Is it perfect? No. Will they need to keep innovating? Of course. A year ago, would we have seen so many male senior administration officials talking openly about their work+life fit challenges? I don’t think so. That’s progress to celebrate.
The Administration is trying to create a culture that gives everyone as much flexibility as possible to manage their fit. But in the end, they all still work for the White House. And for some, that’s a fit that’s just not going to work.
What do you think? Do you feel the White House work-life efforts are hypocritical, or do you see them as helping us all make the flexible management of our individual work+life fit part of the day-to-day operating model?