Redesigning/Redefining Work: Lessons from Industry, Policymakers, and Academia

social-mediaWe–fellow Work in Progress Blogger Adia Harvey Wingfield and I–recently attended a summit centered on Redesigning and Redefining Work. This summit, organized by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, had lofty goals:  to join academic researchers, government policy makers, members of the media, and company representatives to discuss, among other things, new ways to redesign the world of work so that workplaces can better align—for the long term—with the composition and needs of today’s workforce while at the same time allowing workers and businesses to flourish.

The summit focused, among other things, on how flexible work arrangements have the potential to change work environments in ways that produce greater gender equality. Presenters from corporate and academic sectors considered the ways that these programs have been implemented, barriers to implementation, successes, challenges, and benefits.  The program offered a number of different perspectives on ways that flexible work arrangements can have multiple, expected, and possibly surprising benefits for workers and for corporations.

We wanted to share our personal observations of the summit, whose agenda can be found here, because we feel that sociologists of work should be keyed into the discussion of redesign.  We also think the public should be aware of—and join in via commenting here—work redesign discussions happening in academic, workplace, and policy circles.

Thoughts from Julie:

On the first day of the summit, panelists considered why workplace change (i.e., change to the structure and culture of work) is so slow, despite our technological and intellectual capabilities of making dramatic change to work processes and interactions.

Some of the most compelling things I learned on this first day include:

Build support for workers relational and human needs

One way to redesign work in a way that will make it long-lasting (i.e., not forgotten or abandoned in economically tough times) is to provide workers with work contexts that support their relational and human needs (things like family, but also health, spirituality, connection with others).  This connection needs to be done for men, many of whose very identity as a man is gleaned from work, in ways that do not demean their masculinity.

To do this, workplace change needs to move the problem of work from the person to the institution.   For example, consider the ways workplaces have responded to workers living with disabilities.  The federal government required workplaces, for example, to make entryways and bathrooms accessible; individuals living with disabilities were not asked to stay at home.  By failing to change the workplace, we are essentially asking an increasing number of workers (those with families, hobbies, volunteer opportunities, spiritual needs) to stay at home.

Reconsider what we value at work

Really, what DO we value at work? Being busy versus being productive?  Putting in hours versus being creative?  Bottom lines at the expense of health?

Question the status quo

Sometimes, what is first required to redesign work is a simple questioning of the status quo.  For example, why do we have 8+ hour work days when most people’s productivity limits fall far below this mark?  Why do required meetings have to be scheduled into evening time (and, hence, personal and family time)?

Thoughts from Adia:

The second day included three panels with the overarching themes “What’s in it for the Workplaces,” “What’s in it for the Workers”, and “Implementing Change.” The closing keynote, “Reimagining Work by Uncovering Talent,” featured a joint presentation from industry and academic professionals.  Panelists discussed the varied benefits flexible work arrangements could offer workplaces (more productive and engaged employees), the advantages for workers (less stress, greater flexibility and job loyalty), and ways to put these ideas into practice (creative institutional supports). The keynote speakers shared ways to enhance talent and unlock existing bureaucracies to allow employees to flourish in their workplaces.

Overall, I found the session very informative and interesting, with a great deal of important data from a number of sources that convincingly argued for the necessity of more flexible work arrangements in contemporary society.

One of the main strengths of the conference was the deliberate focus on including voices from different places—industry, academia, labor, media. The discussion of how and why both workers and organizations benefit from flexible work arrangements also produced an array of data to support these types of occupational changes—examining workplaces in China that raised employee productivity by implementing policies allowing work from home; considering how restricting formal 9-5 policies helps workers reduce stress and heighten their mental health. The arguments for flexible work arrangements were convincing and highly persuasive.

There were areas to which I would have liked to see more attention given, however. A point I raised during the first day of the summit was that despite the stated focus on gender and the broadly described importance of redefining workplaces to make them more equitable, the conference focused almost exclusively on flexible work arrangements. I was concerned that by looking solely at this aspect of changing workplaces as a way of making them more responsive to modern workers, we ran the risk of making middle class, often white professional women’s experiences synonymous with gender equality. After all, for minority women (many of whom are concentrated into low paying, low status jobs), flexible work arrangements may not only be unrealistic, but far from their most salient concern about how to achieve gender parity at work. Minority men also encounter challenges in workplaces due to intersections of race and gender (perceptions of unsuitability for management positions, difficulties establishing ties with potential mentors), and flexible work arrangements do not seem to be able to solve these sorts of gendered, racialized issues.

Such atendency to make middle class white women’s issues reflective of gendered problems is one that remains a running problem in many mainstream feminist movements, and one that hinders the movement’s ability to establish effective, long-lasting change that improves all women’s lives (and more precisely, that eradicates gender as a source of inequality, since gender and race overlap in some cases to have adverse implications for minority men in certain contexts).  It was a bit problematic to see this pattern reproduced and writ large at this conference.

To be fair, there were a few panelists who did allude to these issues: Susan Lambert (University of Chicago) addressed the challenges for low-wage workers in securing flexible work arrangements, and argued that management perceives their work contributions in ways that would be unlikely to yield changed working conditions; and Kenji Yoshino (New York University) and  Christie Smith (DeLoitte), in their joint closing keynote, acknowledged that intersections of race, gender, and class create divergent outcomes for various workers.

But the bulk of the conference centered on the link between gender and flexible work, and by extension, professional workers who are disproportionately white and female. I would have liked to see some more discussion of the limitations of this approach, or even better, a broader and more inclusive analysis around gender and workplaces.

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