27 September 2023

Time for change: What will work–life balance look like after COVID-19?

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Bobbi Thomason and Heather Williams* say we can hope that one major shift after the pandemic will be away from the harmful assumption that a 24/7 work culture is good for anyone.

As if being a working parent didn’t already include enough moving pieces to manage, even toddlers are now having standing teleconferences.

For the two of us, our daughters’ virtual morning preschool meeting is one more item to be juggled as we attempt to work full-time from home without childcare.

Our own conference calls are scheduled for naptime and occasionally interrupted by a request for potty.

We attempt to wedge the rest of the workday into the early mornings and post-bedtime.

The COVID-19 crisis has shoved work and home lives under the same roof for many families like ours, and the struggle to manage it all is now visible to peers and bosses.

As people postulate how work may be forever changed by the pandemic, we can hope that one major shift will be a move away from the harmful assumption that a 24/7 work culture is working well for anyone.

For decades, scholars have described how organisations were built on the implicit model of an “ideal worker”: one who is wholly devoted to their job and is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, every year of their career.

This was always an unrealistic archetype, one that presumed a full-time caretaker in the background.

Many families are headed by single parents or two working parents.

With schools and some child care closed, work cannot continue as normal simply because working remotely is technologically possible.

Employees are disproportionally well-compensated for being ideal workers.

“Time greedy” professions like finance, consulting, and law — where 80 or 100-hour weeks may be typical — compensate their workers per hour more than professions with a regular 38-hour week.

Flexible work arrangements come with severe penalties; many who leave the workforce for a period or shift to part-time never recover their professional standing or compensation.

When individuals push back — asking for less travel or requesting part-time or flexible hours — their performance reviews suffer and they are less likely to be promoted, studies find.

Simply asking for workplace flexibility engenders professional stigma.

The “ideal worker” expectation is particularly punitive for working mothers, who also typically put in more hours of caregiving work at home than their spouses.

Furthermore, men are more likely to “fake it” and pass as ideal workers, while women make clear that they cannot meet these expectations, including by negotiating flexible work arrangements.

Many organisations are not amenable to adjustments, leading to the perception that women are opting out of the workforce — although research suggests women are actually “pushed out”.

In our world of laptops, mobile phones, and teleconferences, the intellectual and analytical tasks of “knowledge workers” can continue at home.

But low-wage workers increasingly are subject to similar expectations of responsiveness, even as they have less job security and even less flexibility than higher paid workers.

In the midst of this pandemic, retail workers, delivery drivers, and warehouse workers are now forced to be “ideal workers”, too, risking exposure to the virus in public with little support for the families they leave to go to work.

There have been many calls for restructuring how work is done, including making more room for our families and questioning the real value of the eight-hour (or more) workday.

Now is a time for employers to step back and re-examine which traditional ways of working exist because of convention, not necessity.

Executives and managers have the opportunity to choose quality work over quantity of work.

They can value the creative ideas that emerge after a midday hike or meditation session, rather than putting in face time at the office.

They can stop rewarding the faster response over the better response, or the longer workday over a more productive workday.

They can rethink highly competitive career tracks where you make it or wash out — such as giving tenure-track academics and partner-track lawyers the choice of a longer clock before their evaluation.

During this pandemic, employers are seeing that workers can’t function well without accommodation for their family responsibilities.

Will that lesson last after the crisis is over?

Families want greater choices in determining how their work and their families fit together.

Post-pandemic, can we create a system that fits real workers, not just idealised ones?

If so, we have the opportunity to emerge from this crisis with both healthier employees and better-performing organisations.

* Bobbi Thomason is an Assistant Professor of Applied Behavioural Science at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School in Los Angeles. Heather Williams is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

This article first appeared at hbr.org

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