Friday, July 20, 2012

Greece's Crisis Solution: Flex Time?

Could flex-time be the 21st solution to Greece's Byzantine-era bureaucracy?

The question was posed last month at a Women in Business conference in Thessaloniki. Hosted by the British-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, the seminar featured a presentation by the British author Alison Maitland, whose new book, Future Work: How Business Can Adopt and Thrive in the New World of Work, analyzes companies that have thrived on new models of flexibility -- pushed in large part by the need to retain women employees.

Maitland analyzes how organizations such as Ernst & Young, IBM, and Vodaphone are adapting new models of flex-time, allowing employees greater freedom in productivity. From creating a "virtual" office space via teleconferencing, to building networking lounges and removing cubicle space, to allowing employees to work from their local coffee shop, is changing the 9-5 office model on its head in many countries.

Gender has played a large role in developing this trend for two primary reasons, Maitland says: companies increasingly seek to retain women who become mothers in high-level positions, and women in leadership positions tend to be more adaptive, flexible and communicative than their male counterparts. "You don't have to 'act like a man' in order to be an effective leader as women once had to," she says.

Other featured speakers of the night agreed. "In our organization, trust and communication is very important," said Georgia Aifadopoulou, the Head of the Department of Research for the Institute of Transport in Thessaloniki. She has bucked the traditional model of top-down management in Greece, giving her employees license to question her decisions and play an active role in the decision-making process.

Adapting new models of work are critical in a country such as Greece, added Linda Gouta, the Change Management Director for Hellenic Petroleum. Women can play a critical role in bolstering the confidence of stakeholders wary of taking risks during an economic crisis. "You know the classic joke, but I'll say it again: if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, we would have never had these problems."

Caroline Turner, Secretary General of the BHCC, speaks.
So could flex-time be the solution to Greece's bureaucratic woes? It may -- but organizational change in a country low on funds and built on systems of patronage, wasta  and hierarchy will take time. For at the heart of Maitland's argument lies an inherent value system: people want to work -- they just want more freedom when and how to do it. As one local City Hall employee told me: "Work? A government employee will do anything he can to make sure he doesn't lift a finger until the clock strikes 3. He will work as hard as he can to do nothing." 

Flex-time may have to wait.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The "Taxitsou" of Rhodes

The sun is rapacious in Rhodes. It devours everything, including the shade I stand under as I wait for a taxi that is 20 minutes late to drive me to the airport. "Thirty seconds. I'm rounding the corner now," the driver croons into my cell phone. 

His tone makes me think he's sitting in a cafe somewhere, stirring his espresso. I look around in mild desperation. If I hotwired a Vespa, nobody would notice, right? There's about 300 in the parking lot. I eye the skiff floating to my right in the water. Maybe a boat would be faster... 

Sanity prevails as I spy a taxi behind the trees. An older woman in her 50s sits at the wheel of one, polishing her sunglasses. "Are you free?" I ask.

"Of course," she says. "Get in." She's a rare sight in Greece -- a woman taxi driver (or taxitzou). I tell her so as we speed along the narrow seaside highway, swerving through buses, scooters, Germans. She laughs. "I was one of the first," she says with pride. "There's about 17 of us now, but it's still very male-dominated." 

Originally from the Peloponnese, she was widowed when her husband died in his 40s. Left with three children, she has worked for Rhodes's taxi monopoly for over a decade. "You need to love this work in order to do it," the 58-year old says. "Because men still think it 'man's work'."

Has the crisis forced people to change their minds? "Some. Back then, they used to say: 'Go clean some dishes'. But now slowly men are letting their wives work more."

Though business is slow this season, her clients are loyal. "I have an American woman who wouldn't change me for anything," she says. She attributes this to her efficiency: she's always on time, always uses the meter, and scoffs at the "reckless" driving style of the men in her company. 

Female taxi drivers in Dubai share a laugh.  Courtesy Dubai Taxi.
Her story reminds me of the all-female taxi service in Dubai: so-called "pink taxis" that the Government had launched in response to harassment and safety concerns a few years ago. They've been extremely successful, and are now a popular service for tourists and families that prefer the "safe qualities" of a female driver. 

"I always thought I might like to have an all-female taxi service of my own," she muses as I tell her about the company. I've had this in my mind for so many years but, you know..."

The "you know" encompasses a lot: the difficulty in starting a business in Greece, the slump in clients, the ongoing crisis, her age. "I've been working since I was 12," she says. "At my age, to start a business..." she shrugs. 

I stop short of telling her it's possible. That these days, people often switch careers into their 50s and 60s. Because that's America, land of over-optimism, can-doism. This is Brokeistan, where these days, you're lucky to get a pension once you retire. We reach the airport and she rushes to help me with my bags. As I thank her, another car honks impatiently and yells at her to move out of the way. My last vision as I rush into the terminal is of a stout figure planted in the middle of the road, wagging her figure at an impatient (male) driver. I grin. Geia sou, re taksitzou! Eisai proti.