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Want to start a flurry on the internet? Wade into the always fraught discussion about how women should balance work and family commitments. Any piece on the topic is bound to spark a raging debate as Princeton professor and Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter recently confirmed with her Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in which she discusses at length her decision to give up a high-powered State Department job to spend more time with her teenaged sons.
With its catnip title backed up with a thoughtful exploration of a difficult and emotional issue, the article has generated a predictably frantic round of response and recrimination online. But even for those who weren’t dying for another rehashing of the limitations (or lack of them) society and biology puts on women’s life choices, the piece offers food for thought, particularly for those thinking about the future of work and the role of remote collaboration.
Slaughter bemoans the “culture of ‘time macho’—a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you—remains astonishingly prevalent among professionals today.” And argues that it’s time to decouple face time and achievement in favor of more tech-enabled flexibility not just for women but for all workers. She writes:
A study by the Center for American Progress reports that nationwide, the share of all professionals—women and men—working more than 50 hours a week has increased since the late 1970s. But more time in the office does not always mean more “value added”—and it does not always add up to a more successful organization… Long hours are one thing, and realistically, they are often unavoidable. But do they really need to be spent at the office? To be sure, being in the office some of the time is beneficial. In-person meetings can be far more efficient than phone or e-mail tag; trust and collegiality are much more easily built up around the same physical table; and spontaneous conversations often generate good ideas and lasting relationships. Still, armed with e-mail, instant messaging, phones, and videoconferencing technology, we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations more than the required locus of work.
Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments. State-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities can dramatically reduce the need for long business trips. These technologies are making inroads, and allowing easier integration of work and family life. According to the Women’s Business Center, 61 percent of women business owners use technology to “integrate the responsibilities of work and home”; 44 percent use technology to allow employees “to work off-site or to have flexible work schedules.” Yet our work culture still remains more office-centered than it needs to be, especially in light of technological advances.
One way to change that is by changing the “default rules” that govern office work—the baseline expectations about when, where, and how work will be done. As behavioral economists well know, these baselines can make an enormous difference in the way people act. It is one thing, for instance, for an organization to allow phone-ins to a meeting on an ad hoc basis, when parenting and work schedules collide—a system that’s better than nothing, but likely to engender guilt among those calling in, and possibly resentment among those in the room. It is quite another for that organization to declare that its policy will be to schedule in-person meetings, whenever possible, during the hours of the school day—a system that might normalize call-ins for those (rarer) meetings still held in the late afternoon….
Changes in default office rules should not advantage parents over other workers; indeed, done right, they can improve relations among co-workers by raising their awareness of each other’s circumstances and instilling a sense of fairness. Two years ago, the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts decided to replace its “parental leave” policy with a “family leave” policy that provides for as much as 12 weeks of leave not only for new parents, but also for employees who need to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition. According to Director Carol Rose, “We wanted a policy that took into account the fact that even employees who do not have children have family obligations.”
Do you agree with Slaughter’s diagnosis that “time macho” is a problem and her prescription of tech and thoughtful flex-work policies to cure it?
Image courtesy of Flickr user vegetarians-dominate-meat-eaters-01.