Come the Revolution

I was reading this morning about what some (old white male) corporate leaders are saying about work from home vs. work from the office: that working from home is a sign that you are less committed to your career, etc.

I am, as I have stated before, someone is desperately hates working from home and am plotting ways to get back to the office, even before my company officially reopens.

That said, I do not begrudge those who would find it more convenient to work from home because of childcare or eldercare or just because they can’t afford to live within a reasonable commuting distance from the office. If that is what you need to do to stay afloat financially or emotionally, I am not going to cast aspersions on your professional commitment, productivity, or competency.

I was reflecting this morning on a conversation I remember having with a new VP of HR at a large corporation in the early 1990s. She had been tasked with developing new employee benefits that would attract and sustain a more competitive candidate pool, and invited my input. I replied without hesitation.


There was a pause while she chewed that over.

“How does that benefit you?” She asked finally. “You don’t have children.”

“No,” I replied, “but both of my employees have children. They can’t afford to live in areas where professional childcare is available. And even if they did live in those neighborhoods, they wouldn’t be able to avoid professional childcare. So they rely on informal childcare, local neighborhood ladies. If the lady’s own child is sick, or something else goes wrong, they don’t have childcare and are late or absent, or bring their child to work with them. So lack of childcare impacts their productivity. And I end up having to do their work on top of my own, so it would benefit me.”

[Even in the selfish 90s, as a YUPPIE on my way to DINK, I could see that the productivity challenge was the lack of childcare – not that mothers were inherently less productive.]

The VP chewed it over some more. “I don’t think we want to be in the business of childcare,” she said finally.

“Provide the space onsite and outsource to a childcare facility,” I told her.

She took a minute to come up with another excuse. “It wouldn’t be equitable. We’d have to provide it to our store employees” – there were probably 38,000 of them to the 2,000 corporate office workers – “and we couldn’t provide onsite childcare in every location.”

“Our store employees need childcare just as much as our corporate employees,” I replied, “maybe more. Many of our stores are in malls or strip centers. You could work with mall management to sponsor the opening of childcare facilities in the mall and subsidize the cost to our employees. Or just provide credits to them to use at childcare centers nearby.”

At that point, my sister had yet to move to a small town in a rural area – the kind of town where we opened stores – and have kids. And discover that hiring childcare or enrolling them in preschool would have cost as much as her whole salary. So she quit her job to stay home and took food assistance since they couldn’t afford to live on one salary. But even at the time of this conversation I knew, based on what I had seen and heard when visiting our stores, that this was not just an urban problem – it impacted the suburbs, too.

The VP shuddered and asked whether there were other benefits that would more directly apply to me. I thought for a moment.

“Pet insurance,” I told her. She blinked. “My cat is elderly and has a lot of health problems. I have to take her to the vet at least once a month, she’s on all sorts of medications, and I can’t leave her alone when I go out of town – I have to have a vet tech come and take care of her.”

The VP stood up. I don’t know what the right answer was – I clearly didn’t have it. I was there another 20 years and we never got pet insurance or childcare. And the tuition reimbursement program (up to $1,000/year and only if you got a “real” degree in a related field) remained a joke, while candidates continued to be required to have a bachelors, at least.

The VP did institute a lapel-pin program: every 5 years, we received a new pin engraved with our years of service. (The VP had worked for a Japanese company before coming to us.) Mine lived on the lapel of the black blazer that lived, Lily-Tomlinish, on the back of my door. I slipped on that blazer when I had to persuade that same VP of HR to do something new, because I knew she’d say what she always said:

“Oh, you’re wearing your pin! I’m glad to see that. Most people don’t take the trouble.”

Her object-permanence issue somehow made her think that, because she usually saw me wearing the pin, I wore it all the time. When the truth was, I wore it around her, at the annual conferences, and whenever I felt my years of service might lend weight to an argument.

I had also suggested to my boss, when he first told me about this awesome new benefit (service pins), that instead we institute a girl scout-type sash. As people achieved different skills – completed management tasks, learned how to solve different kinds of problems, figured out how to use different software, built their business acumen about the company – we could award badges. Once they had achieved different collections of badges, they would be eligible for a promotion.

It was typical, in those days, for my superiors – baby-boomers all – to accuse Gen-X (me) of being cynical (because they could never tell if I was joking about this stuff or not) or money-grubbing (because I demanded equal pay or complained about being expected to work unlimited overtime since I was salaried).

Yet these ideas are all being floated seriously now by people who are on the leading edge of the company culture revolution.

Floated, and being shot down by people like this dinosaur of a VP. Or people who have bought into the definition of company culture established and maintained by people like this VP.

Come the revolution, baby, come the revolution…

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