Flying in Mary Poppins won’t fix work for parents

A US private equity firm is paying for young children and nannies to fly around the world with their employees. This isn’t a perk, it’s a baby penalty

Just when did we get our knickers in such a twist about babies? In the last few months we’ve learned that one US private equity firm has announced a new policy of “flying nannies” and IBM wants to start shipping their employee’s breast milk. At the same time women with babies are being forced out of the workplace and now a new survey from the Back2Businessship initiative – a programme run by PR firm Golin, media agency Starcom Mediavest Group and recruitment experts f1 - shows that over a quarter of women suffer from “baby shame”. They’re afraid even to admit at work that their child exists for fear of being judged. Baby, this is madness.

Full disclosure: many years ago I worked as a receptionist for KKR, the private equity firm that has just announced it will pay for parents to bring their children and nannies on work trips up until the child turns one. When I worked in its London office there was only one female executive. The firm was known for high salaries and perks but these came with a price. Yes, there was an in-house chef making you breakfast every morning, but anyone arriving in the office after 8am was considered a slacker. And if you left in time to make it home for dinner it was accepted that you were job hunting, you certainly weren’t going to be there for long.

KKR’s “flying nannies” are the firm’s solution to a bigger problem, a lack of diversity, and to give them credit at least they’re trying to do something about it. However, rather like blocking your ears to a screaming baby, this is at best a short-term solution. Like IBM offering to ship new mothers’ breast milk home to their children when they’re travelling, or Facebook and Apple offering to freeze their employees’ eggs, these are all helpful plasters but they don’t address the deeper cause of employee dissatisfaction – we want to have a life outside of the office.

In a brilliant article on Medium, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, explained why the one lesson he’d give his younger self would be to work less and live more. He’s also clear that he doesn’t feel that this philosophy would have held back the growth of the social media giant. Far from feeling that prioritising his personal wellbeing would have come at the expense of Facebook, Moskovitz argues that it would have made him “a better leader and a more focussed employee”.

But we already know this. Time and again studies have shown how working excessive hours actually decreases effectiveness. All that extra time in the office doing the things that absolutely cannot wait until tomorrow, just means that tomorrow you’re less capable of doing the things that need to happen today. Even short sprints of intense working hours result in long-term degradations in work quality. Our bodies need rest; we’re not designed to work all the time.

We also need outside experiences to motivate and enhance our working lives. Think of the great contact you made because you joined a netball team, or the negotiation insight you gained when trying to get your toddler around the supermarket without tantrums. We live blended lives in which experiences outside the office environment can still affect, and often enhance, our work performance. They can also detract from it.

Those 26% of women in the Back2Businesship survey scared to mention their child in the office aren’t doing their best work. Think how much more productive they’d be if the time spent worrying about how their colleagues judged them was instead channelled into their work.

By telling staff they don’t have to worry about leaving their baby behind on a work trip because the child can come with them, what employers imply is that there is no alternative to the trip. If you want to work for us you will get yourself on that plane. To do otherwise would be to show yourself as one of those uncommitted new parents.

Earlier this week I heard the story of a woman who had found herself stranded on the other side of the world while attending a business meeting. It was during the ash cloud and no planes were flying back to the UK, she was stuck. She had a young child at home but there was nothing she could do until the air routes were reopened. It occurred to me that if the situation had been reversed and she’d been stuck in the UK rather than able to attend her meeting, we would all have accepted it as just one of those things. The meeting would have been moved or a conference call suggested; after all if you can’t fly, you can’t fly. An ash cloud is an acceptable reason to miss a meeting, but in our current working culture a baby isn’t.

If KKR had wanted to be really radical it would have looked at how its employees divided their time and then shifted its working culture appropriately. Flying nannies aren’t about diversity, they’re about winning the war on talent. Smart companies know that if you want the smartest employees you have to give them what they want. But here’s the rub: they don’t want Mary Poppins. They want a life.

Contributor

Harriet Minter

The GuardianTramp

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