Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This is the way the (working) world should be

I've worked in a few different scenarios in my life - in an academic setting, in the public sector, for a small multinational and run my own business. I was a manager for some of the time in the multinational, and I bought the argument that part time employees couldn't hold management roles. I understood that job sharing could work, but that it took a very special pair of people and that it still cost the company because it really meant 6 days a week as a result of the need for a day when both sharers are working at the same time.

Then I got to be a better manager and I started thinking a bit more clearly. I also got a better grasp of what makes good employees. If you combine the idea that people work better when they have a balanced life with the idea that roles within organisations are fluid, not fixed little boxes, you come to the conclusion that we should all move towards a norm of most people working 3 days a week.

As a manager, you look at all the work that needs to be done, and the skills required to do it. You determine how many employee days you require of each skill to get everything done. You look at the employees you've got and which skills each has. You don't have to split this job between two people, you look at subcomponents. I might share the stock management with Joe and the supplier management with Jill and Jackie. And then you keep thinking outside the square. It might be necessary in some more senior roles to be contactable on your days off. This is not that big a deal as long as everyone understands that it is for quick, urgent questions. If the role needs more attention than a 5 or 10 minute call, there needs to be someone assigned to make the decision on days when you are not there. This isn't a big deal. It's how our entire business runs, and once you get your head around it, it is absolutely no more complicated than the current paradigm.

Think of all the benfits. A wider range of experience in the workplace. Children get to see both parents during the week. They might still need one day of daycare, but for many kids this is great - a chance to be with other kids while still spending heaps of time with their parents. For those kids for whom day care really doesn't work, more flexible workplaces would also make it possible for some people to work 2 days a week, or 5 days a fortnight, or whatever schedule works for everyone. For single parents the concept of flexibility is built into the workplace, they don't have to fight for reasonable working conditions. Same goes for those people with disabilities who can work a few days but not 5. One less fight for people already fighting enough.

Of course, there are probably some jobs that really need one person doing them 5 days a week (actually, I doubt there is anything that can't be done 4 days a week, but I could be wrong), but presumably there will also be people who want to work 5 days a week. I'm not suggesting that 3 days a week should be compulsory, just that is should be the default instead of 5. Also, some people might prefer working 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, or some other combination.

And of course, there would be another massive benefit - meetings would be harder to call. Perhaps even only the necessary meetings would go ahead. And since many people might have to call into them, hearing kids in the background (or birds, or whatever) might no longer automically imply that you have suddenly lost all your professional skills.

And maybe, with not everyone always there, the ridiculous culture of working insane hours would start to abate. It isn't more productive, it just burns people out, and costs the community in terms of children raised with absent parents and reducing the diversity of people in senior positions. On that latter point, it's only anecdata, but the thread on Shapely Prose lists many examples of how women are preferentially pushed out of certain fields because of the obssessive cultures that prevail there. It obviously doesn't just preferentially push out women, it preferentially pushes out anyone looking for more balance.

All of this would require a huge shift in management technique. It would require managers to manage, rather than being a passive conduit between policy makers and the people who actually do the work, for a start. I left my last job because the Powers That Be wanted me to be the latter and I found it frustrating and infuriating, especially after the previous regime had expected me to be the former. It would be a learning curve for sure, and it would really require managers to understand the work they manage (which has to be a Good Thing), but in the end, everyone benefits. This isnt't a zero sum game. Making employee's lives better doesn't have to cost the employer.

On a final note, just because this has been all about paid work, doesn't mean that I think everyone should be in it. It doesn't mean that I think that people who are not in it are not contributing to society. Nor must they be studying to "count". Part of the motivation for this model is to share the unpaid work around more and therefore increase its value in the paid work world.


  1. Great post Arianne. It really does seem difficult to get that balance between paid and unpaid work - both of which are equally valueable. It seems to me that if quality part-time work were the norm and more available for men and women then it may help disrupt the societal preference for working 5 days and help with the burnout and loss of productivity - but only if, men take up the upaid caring work in equal proportion to their partners.

  2. Yes, that is an excellent point. And women have to be prepared to relinquish control over the household stuff too. In our house both has been an issue. When you've run a household your own way for 15 years, it's hard to accept that doing things differently is ok - or even that he might have to work out himself that if he hangs the clothes out all wonky it's really hard to fold them and put them away. :)

    But in fact, I have a fair bit of faith that they will, and even more so as the next generation comes along. My reason for that is that when men actually have enough time to be in the house, without someone looking over their shoulder, they start to feel the responsibility that women seem to be socialised to have from the start.

    And please excuse the sweeping generalisations, it's just off the top of my head, and I confess to hopeless optimism that if we move in the right direction, other things fall into place. Not by magic, just a few positive feedback loops.

  3. Speaking as a kid who grew up with a dad on flexi-time and a mother on part-time shift work (later full-time office hours) it was absolutely great. Both parents shared the housework and cooking, all three kids were expected to do the same, and my brothers are still strong feminists. My dad dropped us at the bus stop at 7:30 every morning (it was a long trip!) then worked until 4:30, picking us up from the bus again and saving up enough hours for every second Friday off. He was responsible for cooking and shopping by this timetable. My mother was responsible for washing clothes and changing beds on weekends, and we all had to take turns with other tasks like vacuuming, washing the car, pet care and ironing.

    Now that we're adults, one of my brothers changed jobs so that he could have a reliable schedule to share childcare. The other is the only cook for his sharehouse. I have no difficulty doing "manly" home maintenance. Seeing equality in your role models really sticks, and it was partly due to flexible employment that this was possible in my family in the 80s and 90s.

  4. This would also be a MAJOR improvement for people with chronic illness or disability etc that makes it impossible to work full time, including those around retirement age.

    It does assume that people can afford to live off 3 days a week of income, which is not the case for many low paid jobs.

    Hmm. An interesting idea, anyway.

    (Here from Hoyden about Town)

  5. I'm not sure whether it would work, mostly because 8 hours is the limit for me. 3 12s? I don't think I could do it.

  6. @lilacsigil:
    Thanks for sharing that story, it gives me hope that great strides can be made in a generation with some thought and good fortune.

    In a previous life I worked with adults with cystic fibrosis, so I got a glimpse of the frustration of living with chronic illness in the ridiculously rigid work structures we have now. I think that has informed some of my musings.

    Also, you are right about being able to afford to live on 3 days a week. I was basing the concept on the current default model of people moving from individual income households (possibly shared accommodation, but not shared incomes) to dual adult households with 1 - 1.5 incomes. I was envisioning that transition to being one of both adults changing to 3 days a week, rather than one dropping paid work altogether, or moving to other part time arrangements, and one continuing their employment unchanged. I realise this hardly represents everyone, but if that becomes the default model (so plenty of people still work 5 days a week, especially when they are younger), there is an expectation of flexibility and change.

    And thanks for dropping by!

  7. @Shannon:

    If you need a 5 day income, you still work 5 days (see my comment I was writing as you were writing).