For this month’s Startup Parenthood post, I set out to write about what flexibility looks like for parents at RJMetrics using one of my favorite things — data. My plan was to use a focus group of ten or so team members, and I was confident we would learn some interesting things about how parents work here and also dispel myths around what offering flexibility means in terms of individual contribution.

Too often, companies fear abuse of flexible policies, and managers tend to carry the bias that parents won’t contribute as much as non-parents. I wanted to dispel all of that with a signature RJMetrics data journalism style post. But I completely struck out.

Here’s what happened.

Collecting primary data

I’ll start off with a reminder that to have any conversation about the topic of work-life balance, one enters the realm of potentially lawsuit-generating workplace discussions. There’s a whole lot that you’re just not supposed to ask about. I’m not questioning the reasons such laws were put into place, but they are also what puts us in a catch-22 with respect to altering workplace culture.

Companies can’t talk about these things without fear of lawsuits, which creates pushback against gathering input on where changes need to be made, which means nothing changes. In addition, there’s also hesitancy on the part of employees. And we experienced the reason why that is first hand.

Very soon into our discussion we landed on the idea of tracking our time. Not surprisingly for an analytics company, there are a lot of team members into self-quantifying. We wanted to capture data that would give us a sense of how parents at RJMetrics work. We had a great conversation about work-life balance, which was refreshing considering how unique these conversations are in the business world.

The idea was that, to make it truly interesting, we would need to track both parents’ time and non-parents’ time, and compare. The assumption being that we probably all work the same, but there might be interesting patterns around when parents work that could be useful to identify, and possibly to make policies based upon.

And here is where we all started to experience some reluctance. As we started to discuss the details of how time tracking would work, I started feeling a palpable sense of fear about what the data might reveal. For me, and very likely other people in the group, I felt the nagging voice of the imposter syndrome.

The imposter syndrome is real, and isn’t just about talent. It was clear we were all worried about how others would perceive our level of commitment and effort. Every person in the group asked good questions about how the data would be used. But we all wondered, what if it revealed things about us as parents that we wouldn’t like?

In the end, only a couple of people were still interested, so we decided to cancel the exercise.

Collecting secondary data

After we killed the time tracking idea, somebody raised the question of whether we could resolve this anxiety by just using publicly available data. A-ha! We’re really good at doing data journalism here at RJMetrics! But once again — denied.

It turns out there is no publicly available data that is useful. There is the American Time Use Survey, which was recently raided for all kinds of interesting conclusions about the distribution of work between mothers and fathers, but there’s one big problem. The American Time Use Survey doesn’t let you narrow down to just those individuals working at internet tech companies. And this nuance is really important to us.

We know we’re in a unique industry here at RJMetrics. Internet tech jobs are growing, but tech companies still tend to hire far fewer employees per dollar of revenue than almost any other major industry. There a lot of benefits to working at a startup, but a 40-hour work week is rarely one of them. Because of this, looking at data based on manufacturing or other shift-work companies just doesn’t tell us what we need to know.

Interested in the topic of workplace flexibility for parents in tech? Join the conversation #StartupParenthood

Making changes without the data

Even in such an open culture we had trouble collecting the data that might prove useful to improving our policies around flexibility. And if we’re having trouble, I can’t imagine what larger, more bureaucratic organizations would require. It also seems unlikely that that data will ever be collected in the kinds of big, expensive ways that Congress or other legislatures seem to require to make real workplace changes.

So, what does this mean for us here at RJMetrics? As much as we advocate for data-driven decisions, sometimes there just isn’t the data that you want. So, we have to make do. Here’s what we we already know works and what we plan to do more of:

  • We can continue to offer flexibility in the ways we know how.
  • We can continue to build a culture that engenders individual freedom of choice about work.
  • We can build a culture that we believe is as good for parents as it is for non-parents.

While it would have been interesting to have data to support a hypothesis that parents don’t typically work from 5 to 7 pm, and to potentially take specific actions based on that data, we don’t need that data to DTRT (Do The Right Thing). And for us, that means allowing people the freedom to block off their calendar so they can do whatever they need to do: pick up their kid, get home, make dinner, do family time and bedtime, or make it to intramural baseball practice.

In other words, we can continue to create a culture that allows people to block off time for their lives while still being useful and fulfilled at our company. With that in mind, we’re leaving data collection behind for this topic and we’re going to spend the next three months digging into our flexible culture: how we got here, what it specifically looks like, what is important to us (and what’s not), what works, and where there are still some issues.

Catch up on the posts you missed: