Business Technology

Sunday 4 December 2016

Why Mark Zuckerberg's paternity leave will help us all

Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan - the couple posted this image to Facebook when they announced their baby news
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan - the couple posted this image to Facebook when they announced their baby news

Will Mark Zuckerberg's decision to take two months' paternity leave change the one-way traffic in tech companies towards always-on availability?

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For those who missed it, the Facebook co-founder announced that when his baby daughter is born, he will leave the office behind for a full eight weeks.

"Studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families," he wrote in a personal Facebook post. "This is a very personal decision, and I've decided to take two months of paternity leave when our daughter arrives."

Zuckerberg didn't technically say that he wouldn't work during that period.

Nevertheless, at a stroke, he has given a very powerful signal to the tech sector that it's OK to be a family person while still being an ambitious achiever.

There are few industries that need this message more. The tech sector has become competitive to the point that time off is becoming a theoretical concept rather than a solid feature.

Last month, LinkedIn changed its meaning of time off from "holidays" to "discretionary time off". Instead of getting a prescribed number of days off each year, the online networking giant encourages its staff to "work with your manager to request time off" when your work is satisfactorily completed. The move is an attempt to inspire LinkedIn employees to "act like an owner" without actually being one.

In the US, a growing number of tech firms are now having to pay staff extra to take holidays, such is the fear among employees that they'll be negatively viewed if they skip a couple of weeks.

That includes productivity software firm Evernote, which introduced an unlimited vacation policy in 2011 only to find that holidays taken shrivelled up. The company had to start paying staff an additional $1,000 to take holidays. Another software firm, FullContact, gives a $7,500 bonus if staff take holidays.

When Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer gave birth to a child last year, she took just two weeks' maternity leave. She also admitted to having worked during that fortnight and to being "available" in case of "an issue".

The message that sent out to anyone who worked in Yahoo and the tech industry was that achievers don't take time off, even when they've given birth.

So this announcement from Zuckerberg, one of the world's most successful ever tech founders, surely has the potential to rebalance those assumptions.

Sceptics will point out that Zuckerberg is at the top of the tree, relatively unchallenged for his position or for any advancement. As such, they will say, it is actually easier for him to take this position than it would be for someone two managerial rungs below.

This may or may not be true. He has, after all, ever-present pressure from shareholders who are unmoved by any family considerations.

Some may also point out that it could be easier for a male executive to do this than a female one. Zuckerberg is winning universal plaudits for his initiative in a way that a female executive may not. (In all likelihood, reaction to someone like Marissa Mayer taking two months' maternity leave might range from "well, we expected that" to "this is why you can't have a woman as a chief executive".)

Nevertheless, the fact that Zuckerberg is doing this has to be a positive thing for anyone who believes in a little more work-life balance.

Will he actually take time off? If not, it might be better that we didn't know. Because a creeping off-but-available mode is starting to take over everyone's life.

"The guilt of taking time off takes over, and you 'just check in' or promise to be available if anything comes up," said Mathias Meyer, chief executive of Berlin-based company Travis CI, which had to reverse an 'open vacation' policy because no-one was taking holidays.

"This ambiguity trickles through to everyone on your team. When someone starts checking in during their vacation, it lowers the bar for others to do it, and increases the uncertainty of whether or not to check in."

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