by Mark Tilbury
There have been a range of articles and blog posts on how to manage a career in the West and dealing with a young family. The work / life balance agenda is high on the radar of many blue chip organisations in the West and it’s been fascinating to hear of people’s experiences of juggling family and career as expectant and young parents deal with the demands of childcare.
I’d like to add a slightly different perspective to the debate and introduce the issue of ‘The Sandwich Generation’ – caring for children and parents (I read somewhere it effects nearly a million in the UK) and the conundrum of managing your own career expectations. With this perspective I start to look with envy at the ‘relationship driven’ culture that many describe about the Middle East (particularly the traits around collectivist, the family, hierarchy and honour – leading to the collectivist v individualistic debate that many refer to when looking at differences between Middle East and Western cultures).
I have a son who started year 7 and an elderly Mother with dementia. There’s almost nothing more draining, stressful, emotional and guilt-inducing than caring for an elderly parent while raising a child. You don’t only deal with the extra caring related to the condition of dementia in a parent– washing and feeding, financial and medical affairs but also the effect on your child as they become anxious about what’s going on within the family; sad about the changes their grandmother is experiencing, feeling ignored because your attention is elsewhere and generally scared of what’s going to happen.
I work for a large consultancy organisation and I advise companies on how to use new technologies to change the way they work. Over the last few years the main focus has been on collaboration technologies. One of the reasons I began to focus on ‘new ways of working’ and improved virtual technologies in late 1990s / early 2000s was the ability to play an active role in caring for my son. I fondly remember waiting minutes for the dial-up tone to connect to the network so I could access email, intranet, extranets etc. What took seconds in the office would take minutes via dial up but flexible working enabled my wife and I to share all the child care duties and those special moments that you will never forget.
One of the coping methods I found was an assessment of how far I could expect to take my career during this period. While technologies enabled greater ability to work away from the office the HR and company policies were slow to catch-up and I found myself part of an increasing number who had ‘informal working arrangements’ to get around rigid HR policies that no longer fitted the demands of working parents. Whilst I felt that my new working arrangements were a hurdle to career development it was still something that could be overcome.
Gradually as the 2000s moved on companies began to appreciate the need to change policies to retain and develop thee working / caring parent. If I compare where are now with the late 1990s and early 200os (both in technology and company policies) there have been tremendous advances. There are still some stumbling blocks (recognition, promotion and reward) but these are gradually be addressed in many organisations. At the start of the century companies saw the need to change to reflect the changing workforce. I sense, as the Sandwich Generation grows yet another assessment is needed within organisations on how to retain and develop this grouping.
Currently I sense trying to develop a career during the ‘Sandwich Generation’ period becomes impractical. Prior to my Mother’s dementia getting worst I worked in a global role for one of the Big 4. Continuing to travel became impossible as the need to be ‘close to home’ became paramount as medical visits and caring duties increased.
How do companies begin to address the next change in the demands of their workforce? I don’t have the answers or a solution but I sense the need for companies to change many elements around the ‘people’ agenda – from the physical networking being prominent in career progression (we are only starting to explore how networking tools can assist the individual in a business content – what would Linkedin look like in 5 years?) and HR contracts, policies and procedures are still primarily based around a ‘9 to 5’ existence rather than reflecting the increased flexibility that people will demand. Flexibility is not just around working at home, or juggling days but changing contracts to reflect the new demands, maybe building around achievements and tasks rather than the location and time period these tasks are conducted in.
This I where I begin to look at traditional Middle Eastern values for solutions and wonder if our ‘individualistic’ agenda in the West has gone too far? While we try to address this with family friendly policies like child care vouchers or tolerance of time off due to ‘family issues’ these really are just a sticking plaster.
In the Middle East I look at what a ‘collectivist’ culture brings. Close relatives live together or are near each other; stronger family ties and care for the aged in the family environment, as a family. Your primary network is your family.
The ‘networking’ issue is something that interests me. I maybe para phasing here for effect but a large part of career progression in consultancies is the ability to network internally. Even in 2015 this still means attending after-work drinks, evening network events and team get-togethers.
This works for many without parenting responsibilities – when I was young, free and single I spent much of time doing something similar within organisations. But for an increasing number the ability to spend evenings away from the family unit is becoming impractical and for many impossible. Commitments to both children and parents prevent this as avenue for networking. So increasing ‘enterprise social networking tools begin to play a vital role in getting known within organsiations and reduce the need for ‘presenteeism’ to be a major part of progression.
Me and my son
There is also something that we could learn from other ‘cultures’ particularly around closeness to family networks as a means of support. We appear to have lost this safety net as we move further away from family roots. Being able to Skype family is wonderful but the ability to provide physical and emotional support is limited. Seeing a loved-ones face on Skype may give a spiritual lift but on many occasions you need the physical ‘lift’ only a close at hand family member can bring.
So while we cherish technology and new working practices to support us as our life demands change we should also remember some of the fundamental support a family network close at hand can give. Maybe with this in mind we will see more reference to the Middle East ‘collectivist’ culture as we look to deal with the ever growing issue of the ‘sandwich generation’.