Recognizing employees outside the cubicle

It’s time to think about ways to include and embrace the whole person, not just the part of the person who’s an employee


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If you had every Tuesday afternoon off, what would you do with it?

Several years ago, Kim Sullivan worked at a company that offered its employees an alternative work schedule. She worked an extra hour each day in exchange for a half-day off once a week. While many employees wanted their time off on Mondays or Fridays to extend the weekend, Kim chose Tuesday afternoons instead.

Most Tuesday afternoons, she quilted.

Maybe you wouldn’t expect a member of your leadership team to spend her Tuesday afternoons quilting. Maybe you even rolled your eyes at the word “quilting” – after all, if you suddenly got every Tuesday afternoon off, you’d write that novel, or train for that marathon, or finally organize your garage, or … well, you know, you’d pick something more “productive.”

Maybe that’s the point.

Some weeks, Kim scheduled doctor’s appointments on Tuesday afternoons, or took care of a pressing errand. But most weeks, she scheduled time at a quilt store, where she could slip off the grid, and get far, far away from the responsibilities and stresses of work and family, just for a few hours.

It’s no surprise that Kim looked forward to it every week — not only because she could escape on Tuesday afternoon, but also because of how that escape helped her get through the rest of the week. Those few hours quilting were restful and restorative, supportive of her mental as well as physical health. When she came in to the office Wednesday morning, she was a happier, healthier, more productive worker.

If that kind of flexible schedule arrangement has those kinds of benefits, why don’t we see more companies embrace something like it? The answer may have something to do with a too-narrow definition of diversity and inclusion.

If our diversity and inclusion objectives include honoring difference, enabling people to be who they are, and encouraging employees to bring their best selves to work, then we need to be thinking about ways to include and embrace the whole person, not just the part of the person who does the work.

Programs that recognize we are also somebody outside the cubicle are a start.

 

Withholding judgment

 

You’re thinking, “What will happen if I give my employees that much freedom? Will the work get done?” That fear is understandable. But Kim suggests you should think again.

“It’s not an easy program to manage from an administrative perspective,” she admits, noting that schedule coordination can be a challenge.

But she believes the benefits far outweigh the effort and dismisses fears that people would abuse the privilege.

“We never had anybody on that program evolve into a performance issue, and a lot of top performers participated in it.”

On top of that, “I think you get better productivity as a whole out of your staff, too,” she says, “because they’re invested in making sure it works. They like having that time off.” And mitigating the risk is the simple fact that, “If it doesn’t work, you’re done, the program ends. So it has built-in incentives to keep it going.”

Such a program can also foster a more inclusive work environment. “As you find out what people might be doing with their time, or what hobbies they have, there’s an opportunity to share that,” Kim explains.

However, if you want to make a program like this work where you work —and make it an effective piece of your diversity and inclusion efforts — you first have to remove judgment.

It’s one thing to talk about honoring and appreciating difference and another to give people the time to do the thing that makes them different, without judging them for how they choose to spend that time.

It’s one thing to give people flexible personal time off, and another to build it into the weekly schedule, so people can take the time for themselves without feeling guilty or self-conscious about doing it.

And it’s one thing to talk about “work-life balance” and embracing the whole person, and another thing to let people define that balance for themselves, and not give them dirty looks when they leave the office.

As it turns out, withholding judgment on how people choose to spend their Tuesday afternoons is great practice for withholding judgment on other differences we encounter in the workplace.

Isn’t that what diversity and inclusion work is all about?

Eric Ratinoff, principal of The Mouse and the Elephant, which helps companies prepare for the diverse workforce of the future through training and process improvement, can be reached at eric@mouseandelephant.com. Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College and is principal of BDS Insight, an executive coaching and organizational development firm, can be reached at loretta@bdsinsight.com. Learn more about diversity and inclusion by connecting with A Seat at the Table on Facebook.

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