"Those of us in leadership positions can rewrite the rules of the corporate workplace-for women in banking, and for that matter for every person in every industry. And having made it to the top, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we don't."

-Irene Dorner, CEO of HSBC USA

Let's imagine it's 2022. Women are now equal partners at every level in banking and finance, from cashier to the C-suite. In getting there, they've adjusted the workplace's culture, policies, and practices so that everyone can do their utmost at work and also take care of themselves and their families, through good times and bad. The change has been backed enthusiastically by men who want to be involved fathers, by anyone caring for ailing parents, by millennials who insist on having a life, by baby boomers who want to retire gradually and by workers of all stripes who are in revolt against the new expectation of 24/7 availability. In doing so, they've discovered that flexibility leads to higher productivity, better retention, better recruitment, better customer service, improved worker wellness and other measurable business benefits.

What does this new workplace look like? Of course, no one can really know. A decade can bring unforeseen and dramatic technological and social transformations. (Cf: Facebook, 9/11, algorithmic trading.) But some banks already are experimenting with new approaches to allow us to both work and live to our utmost potential-in ways that may offer clues to our future.

Somewhere in the early 2010s, the financial services industry realized that women's careers had been-unconsciously, unintentionally-slowed down by attitudes and assumptions about what it took to be a good worker. After all, career paths and workplace conventions had been invented by men, for men, back when wives stayed home taking care of house, family and social life.

"Men didn't intend this to happen; it's simply human nature," says Irene Dorner, CEO of HSBC USA. "People create working environments hospitable to people who are similar to themselves. In industries dominated by men, the rules of the game favor men."

In the decade before our future workplace was built, most big banks already had formal mentoring programs, diversity councils, leadership development training, and even flex-time options. But those policies weren't enough to counter the unspoken idea, for instance, that taking family leave, or going parttime for a few years, or wrapping work hours around the school schedule was only for women with no ambitions.

Once banks and finance firms woke up to the fact that the unspoken rules were hurting everyone-depriving banks of talent, unfairly holding women back, confining men into falsely straitened roles-industry leaders started rewriting the policies, rules, and practices to reward managers (and everyone) for making conscious decisions that ran exactly counter to those outdated work and thought patterns. Like State Street, they started requiring managers to launch assessments of flexible working patterns, measuring staff by their results instead of their presence. Like Deloitte, they started to portray careers not as ladders but as lattices, asking employees if they wanted to "dial up" or "dial down" at any given time, without being permanently sidelined. Like Bank of America, they began to base executive performance reviews in part on their teams' diversity. Like USAA, they started to let workers stay home, deploying new communications technologies to nurture team spirit and morale despite the lack of physical proximity.

To make these informal shifts, they measured, analyzed and fine-tuned their way into destigmatizing flexibility by making it the rule, not the exception. That made it easier for women to interweave their work and family lives and to stay committed to demanding careers-meanwhile improving morale, recruitment, retention, and productivity across the board. "Flexibility is something that all your employees need, not just working moms," explains Lisa Horn, Co-Director of the Society for Human Resource Management's Workplace Flexibility Initiative. "Military families. Employees of different faith communities. Disabled communities. Millennials, who are very focused on their life outside work. People taking care of their aging parents and relatives. Getting the best out of all your people means giving them some level of autonomy over how, when, and where they do their best work."

By 2022, no one any longer uses the phrase "work-life balance"- because we've realized that balance doesn't exist. At some points in your life, you're excited about working from dawn until you drop. At others, you want to leave at 3:30 p.m. for the kids' holiday pageant, working again after their bed times. At still other points, you need to be on call for your rapidly deteriorating father. (One in five workers is currently caring for an elder-and one in two expects to be within the next few years.) The only balance possible is the balance you get over a lifetime. What you need from your career-and in your workplace- is measured flexibility.

With written agreements laying out the boundaries and expectations, along the lines of what's being done now at firms such as State Street, the average workplace in 2022 lets folks work a variety of hours and in a variety of places, with prorated benefits for part-time work-so long as it makes sense for both the business and the employee. Some folks work four 10-hour days; others work 9-2 and 8-11. Hourly workers can swap shifts, or parts of shifts, at a moment's notice.

Our 2022 workplace has figured out how to match autonomy with accountability. By setting clear goals and regularly assessing how well those are met, managers have put an end to "presenteeism" to ensure that all employees are treated fairly, wherever and whenever they work.

Further, our 2022 employer has structured ways of assessing which individuals, positions, and work units can use which kinds of flexibility-so that decisions aren't made ad hoc, case by case, person by person, manager by manager, which can lead to resentment, perceptions of favoritism, inconsistency, and difficulties in assessing whether or not it's working for both the employee and the employer. All this has taken away the stigma of asking for something exceptional-because we have made flexibility unexceptional.

So how did our employers get there?

State Street recognized a few years ago that internal use of its flexibility policies was hit or miss, depending on the individual and the manager-which meant that women were more likely to be stigmatized if they asked for accommodations, and that not every business unit was in on the flexibility push. To standardize, State Street launched a program called "manager-initiated flexibility," making it the manager's job to evaluate positions for various forms of flexibility, using a template of questions. Depending on the answers, the system outlines the kinds of flexibility available that work for that position, along with the policies, practices, resources, and evaluation mechanisms that should be used to govern it.

An internal 2010 survey found that 67 percent of respondents, men and women equally, had used flex arrangements of some kind-at a company with 29,000 employees in 26 countries. Nearly everywhere flex programs were implemented, employee engagement increased, according to Mike Scannell, a senior vice president and the head of global inclusion and the flexible work initiative at State Street.

Flexibility's benefits accrue to small companies as well as large, according to Alberta Rosburg, human resources director at Wisconsin's Merchants Bank, which won a 2011 Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility. "We believe strongly in the philosophy that if people are happy at home, it affects work," she says.

Merchants Bank, which has only 400 employees, has set policies but a more informal way of ensuring that they're used. "I have someone who had a baby and was out for twelve weeks," she says. "I asked her, 'Do you want to work 32 hours instead of 40?' She said, 'I never asked because I never thought it would be a possibility.'"

Another staffer, a communications manager, asked for-and was granted-a compressed workweek, putting in four 10-hour days so he could play golf on Wednesdays. "You have to base it on trust and on results," Rosburg says.

Even hourly employees can work flexibly, with variations from the standard 8-4 or 4-midnight shifts, so long as there are ways to ensure coverage.

Horn, of the Society of Human Resource Management trade group, suggests for instance that a shift worker who's taking care of an elderly relative might ask for every Thursday morning off to get that person to medical appointments. So our ideal bank industry employer in 2022 has a software system-like the one used now by Delta Air Lines-that enables employees to independently swap shifts, even up to the last minute, making bank branches and call centers more flexible places to work.

As Melinda Reeves, executive vice president of people services at USAA, says, "We want people to take some time away from work if that's what they need, so that when they're at work they can have peace of mind and focus on our members."

USAA already helps employees eliminate the stress of handling daily responsibilities by having many important services on site, including a gym, a five-minute clinic, a pharmacy, a cafeteria with a wide range of foods, an indoor walking path, tennis, basketball, volleyball courts, child and eldercare backup services, and financial counseling. And when one of its highly trained and experienced employees has to move because a military spouse is transferred, USAA has a detailed protocol in place for keeping that employee involved and as productive as if she was still down the hall.

Xochi Cantu, a car insurance claims adjustor, started with USAA in its Colorado Springs, Colo., office. When her military husband was transferred to Fort Benning, Ga., she was able to stay in close touch with her unit of 10 adjustors via instant messaging, daily phone "huddles" for briefly catching up with each other and longer weekly staff meetings via conference call.

"I'm a people person and I love to interact," says Cantu. "I'm working here in a four-bedroom home all by myself, and if I need help with something, I don't feel alone. We don't feel we're missing out on anything [in terms of] what's going on with each other, what's going on in the office [or feeling] part of the team at USAA. It's amazing."

Reeves says that structured flexibility also is part of a plan to prevent a massive talent drain as the boomers retire. "We put in a staggered retirement so we could allow people to keep doing as much as they want to do, instead of retiring cold turkey."

Beyond the day-to-day flexibility, our 2022 ideal workplace has a generous vision of family leave. New parents are expected to stay out for three months, male and female alike, with their review period put on hold while they are away-unless they want to stay out for one month, and return part-time so that they can stretch out their opportunity to get to know their family's newest member. The same amount of paid and unpaid time off is available, of course, for a defined list of triggering life events, such as a major personal or family illness, and other crises.

"We have an entire team of people at USAA dedicated just to communicating about our time off and support policies, so we can counsel employees about what they can do if they need to care for a parent, a child, or some other personal need," Reeves says. "So many times an employee has to figure it out on their own. We make sure employees can talk to someone, asking: Here's what I want to do, how do I use my leave, what am I eligible for?"

Some crises-a devastating disease, a deteriorating parent- have no clear end date. What is to be done when an employee is out of time, but can't really afford to stay home without pay?

Rosburg at Merchants Bank is particularly proud of her Emergency Leave Bank. Employees donate unused vacation time for use by those in extraordinary circumstances-anonymously, without knowing who will use it. Employees can apply for the time on their own behalf, or a supervisor or coworker can apply for them. Rosburg says that one employee used it to be with her husband full time while he was dying. Another employee used the emergency leave bank to remain on the payroll while profoundly ill. After he died, Rosburg said, "his brother emailed us and said he wished he could work for a company like ours, because we treated him with such dignity and love."

To ensure that employees understand what they can do and continue to feel connected while immersed in family demands, our 2022 ideal workplace has career coaches who stay in touch with employees on leave, checking in about job opportunities, reminding them to make use of the company intranet and keeping them up to date on office news.

USAA's Reeves says that she recently approved a job change for an executive who, because of personal demands, needed to step down from a management role to become an individual contributor. The culture was such, she said, that no one doubted the employee's commitment. Of course the former executive would have less pay, less responsibility and a lesser title. But there would be opportunities to ramp back up when the time was right.

Flexibility at companies that already have caught onto its benefits has been facilitated by the explosion of new communication and collaboration technologies. We now have shared online filing systems for groups working on related documents; online calendars enabling everyone to see upcoming deadlines and to clarify when individuals are and are not available; instant messaging, internal social media networks, webcams, Skype, and other video tools that make it easier to keep in touch from wherever you might be, and possible to have the kind of serendipitous water cooler exchanges that make a team far more productive.

What else might be coming to help usher flexibility into more workplaces over the coming decade?

Dr. V. Michael Bove, principal research scientist at MIT's MediaLab, doesn't see any major technological breakthroughs on the horizon. (But then, who foresaw Facebook or Twitter?) Rather, he says, corporate cultures need to catch up to the existing technological possibilities.

"People now have as much bandwidth at home or in a hotel room as they have in the office. They have the same level of or even better computational resources or in their pockets than what they're issued by corporate IT department. Clearly, the tools exist that allow people to be very, very productive wherever they are."

Bove talks instead about breakthroughs in how we work based on those shared resources, such as putting reports and research materials online in advance of a meeting so that the actual interactions can focus on points of misunderstanding. Given our mobility, he asks rhetorically, "So why go to work at all? Because you have meetings at 8, at 9, at 10." But the meetings aren't the point, says; they're "an excuse to stand around, have coffee, and talk about important things. Workplaces are important not because of the scheduled things but because of the unscheduled interactions."

That's why several experts mention expanded web video as the next important workplace tool. Patricia Kammer, a senior researcher on Steelcase's workspace futures team, says video makes an enormous difference in communication. In her own globally distributed team, she says, conference calls via telephone were nearly useless. "Telepresence was far more important. We needed to see body language and nuance." Which is why Steelcase, in trying to build the workplaces of the future, is creating dedicated telepresence areas within its furniture, with the surroundings designed for the best view. The idea is to make it possible to "wander in" to someone else's area for a chat- even across continents. "If your team is making million-dollar decisions daily, you need to make sure the other person truly understood, especially when you're talking about global distribution, with language differences and cultural differences," she says. "You don't want delays in product development because someone misunderstood a word or the context of a word." Telepresence also will keep improving families' abilities to stay in touch when someone has to travel-or check in with teenage children or ailing parents who need ongoing contact but not full-time care.

The downside of the flexible workplace, as many of us know, is that we never leave the office behind. We're deluged with demands on our attention wherever we go. With administrative assistants increasingly seen as a luxury, we scroll through our various inboxes incessantly lest we miss one critical contact.

Bove believes that the next frontier will be "some technological solution that prioritizes communications for us. It will absolutely become possible for systems to analyze incoming communications and figure out what has to be responded to now and what has to be responded to sometime this week."

Because we now have all our contacts and plans on one device- with our calendar, email, texts, phone calls and video sitting together-this new software agent will be able to analyze all our interactions, past and present, in context. Explains Bove, "If I'm having a meeting with someone and get an email 15 minutes before from them, I probably need to know about it right now. A very small amount of observation really can generate very useful metadata about communications."

Steelcase's Kammer believes the workplace of the future will be better in part because all of us will demand it. "If you're not providing an environment where your talented workers have that choice and control, you won't be able to attract and retain the best possible talent."

That's certainly true for women, who-whether because of nature, nurture, or culture-often feel the push to trim their work lives to accommodate their families. But it's increasingly true for everyone who seeks to have a multidimensional life.

It's anyone's guess how else the workplace might be transformed. Will the obesity epidemic make eating at your desk seem as shocking as indoor smoking does today? Will Americans' growing love of animals lead to pet-friendly office floors? Will we soon have "glass" windows between our desks that can turn into computer screens, interactive calendars, video screens, white boards or privacy blockers as needed? Will nanobots register every communication's emotional temperature and report raging bosses or grudge-nurturing workers?

Whatever changes might arise, the technical and the formal shifts will be easiest; the informal cultural changes will be hardest. But by articulating the barriers, reducing the stigma for doing things a little more flexibly, and rethinking the reasons for our usual practices, we are making our way into a healthier and more productive future.

E.J. Graff is an author, a speaker and a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center.

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