Over the past fifty years, America has seen steady shifts in the makeup of its workplace. Managing these changes in career, family, and gender have needed to be addressed by both HR and workers themselves. Pamela Tolbert, professor from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, has been studying how social changes affect organizations and vice versa. She sat down with eCornell’s Chris Wofford to discuss how organizational leadership can address challenges for workers in today’s workplace and what they can do to create a more progressive environment that leaves everyone at the table more fulfilled.
What follows is an abridged version of that conversation.
Wofford: I think one of the through lines to today’s conversation, the thing we’re going to be talking about is work-life balance. Why is that an issue today? What’s the landscape look like? Give us some perspective.
Tolbert: So this gets into how organizations affect social life in part. And I think there are a couple of things that have led to this becoming a really big issue today particularly. I mean people have always worked, people have always had families. But there’ve been changes in both families and the workplace that have kind of lead to a perfect storm in how these two spheres relate to each other. We moved from the kind of traditional family where you have the husband is the bread winner, and the wife stays at home and takes care of things, to a place where you have dual earner couples are common place. And that change occurred pretty quickly actually. About 50% of all families, the husband worked, the wife stayed at home. By the 2000s, it was somewhere between 60% to 75% of the workforce were dual earners.
And then the workplace really didn’t change that much. You know, you have this big social change going on outside the workplace that affects it, not so much adaptation.
Wofford: I’m curious what companies are doing.
Tolbert: So there are a couple of major experiments in particular that I think are really promising. And part of the thing that makes them I think work, is that they’re really focused on rethinking how we work. Not just trying to help people manage work family relations, but the basic premise, these are a couple of experiments. One was done at Best Buy.
Wofford: What happened at Best Buy?
Tolbert: In the case of Best Buy, it was called Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). So in that case it was started by their HR, but they were very conscious of the fact that part of what had gone wrong in the accommodations arrangements, where you have to ask your supervisor if you’re going to take a leave, or you have to make a deal to have flexible work arrangements. So it’s clear that it’s very important to get the supervisors involved in this. That it’s not something that’s just imposed upon them. So what they did was to bring together teams of employees and their supervisors, and the supervisor was responsible for helping the team come up with the ideas and to think the processes through essentially- everything is fair game. Let’s think about the meetings that we have. Let’s think about whether we could use technology more effectively to do things, rather than having all these meetings. If we made some kind of scheduling arrangements, could we then allow people to have more time off, so that they’re not having to be there constantly? Just to be more effective in thinking about the arrangements for coordinating and controlling.
Wofford: They would close the loop on a lot of their initiatives.
Tolbert: Yeah, yeah. So they could readjust. And it turned out it was a very effective program. I mean the employees were incredibly enthusiastic about it. It spread to a large number of others- it started at headquarters, and then it spread throughout the company, and actually a number of other organizations adopted it. They had data, it reduced turnover by almost half.
And the employees reported that they were getting more sleep, they had more energy, they could focus better, because of being able to control their work. So I think part of what’s important here is that because people were motivated to try and think, how can I work better? Because they have the carrot at the end, that your life would actually be improved. It’s not like, think how to work more efficiently so you can work more often.
With a national policy you could kind of provide incentives for employers to spread the work out a little bit more. Everybody would benefit. Including families. And all kinds of things. So that’s one direction that things could go. We also have model organizations to provide pathways. I mentioned the SAS corporation. There is a case study from … I think it’s in the Harvard. But anyway, it’s about this big data analytics company which has been around since, I don’t know, 1976 maybe. It’s a successful company. Always done well. This is the one where they have a 35 hour work week policy. Although people are also expected that if you’re needed you will be there. But the norm, you have a norm that work is not supposed to wake up every day of your life. They provide childcare policies. It’s a very employee centered company.
And the case makes it sound like Shangri-La. But the thing is is that it’s a private company and I think it’s easier to do that than in a public company because in a public company you start getting pressures from stockholders to cut out the fat and make it run more effectively. It is a private company but it’s had like a 10% sales growth on average every year since it was founded. Clearly it’s succeeding. It’s not like the “fat” is being wasted. You can’t make it an HR sort of project. You’ve got to get it spread throughout the company. But HR’s historically been sort of the champion of these kinds of initiatives.
So I think that the thinking about work and family as kind of integrated whole is an important thing for policy. For national policy but also for company policy.
Want to hear more? Watch the recorded live eCornell WebSeries event, Careers, Family, and Gender: Managing Effectively in Today’s Shifting Workplace, and subscribe to future events.