Establishing A New Balance

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October is annual National Work & Family Month. Who knew? A 2003 U.S. Senate Resolution declared this to be the month of “encouraging workplaces to pause…and reflect on the progress already made on the journey to work-life effectiveness, to celebrate and then raise the bar moving on to even more pervasive progress.”

Though it’s admirable to encourage employers to reflect on the issues of work/life balance and workplace fairness, I’m not popping the cork to toast progress just yet. From a worker’s rather than an employer’s perspective, National Work & Family Month seems like an opportunity to recalibrate where work/life issues are headed.

Last October, catalyzed by my new family’s struggle to find a household work model that would allow both of us adults to strike a balance between parenting, working, and time together, I applied for a job with a revered family rights advocacy organization. This organization had authored the largest piece of family rights legislation in our nation’s history, and I’d long been a supporter.

In the interview, the hiring manager indicated that I was perfect for the position – overqualified, even. I was prepared to take a pay cut in order to switch to more meaningful and personally resonant work. Before they made an offer, I expressed that I was hoping for a temporary part-time arrangement while I transitioned back to work after maternity leave. And I’d need to be a remote worker, since I couldn’t relocate my whole family to the Beltway.

You could have heard a pin drop.

After stammering that he’d evaluate the possibility of a remote, part-time arrangement, the hiring manager called me back to say that the organization “just wasn’t ready for that type of arrangement.” He explained that the salaried staff all worked way more than full-time, and that the organization (in so many words) just culturally couldn’t accept someone who set boundaries to preserve time with their family. It goes without saying that although the position was one that could have been done from anywhere, the organization also couldn’t accept someone who worked from outside the office, no matter where that person was.

I was stunned. This organization couldn’t accept a formal arrangement to promote work/life balance? Not even for someone returning to work after family medical leave – a right guaranteed to me by the very legislation that this organization had written?

Something was terribly wrong with this picture.

Well-meaning resolutions urging employers to “do the right thing” by workers are great, but when institutions with all the right politics can’t – or won’t – figure out how to walk their talk, it’s a sign. A sign that perhaps something fundamental is at stake in these changes, and that we may need something even larger than policy imperatives to change the culture.

Let’s use the role reboot metaphor to talk about culture change.

My experience with the family rights advocacy organization seems to be a sign that our whole operating system is flawed. The underlying code, all of our agreement about how the working world and our private and family lives should intersect, is woefully out of date.

In the U.S., there are lucky ones among us (myself included) who have access to a host of “critical system updates” that guarantee certain protections, like family medical leave, paid sick days, and the new Affordable Care Act. Then there are the congressional resolutions that encourage good behavior by employers in service of vague notions of work-life balance or “effectiveness,” but fail to define what that actually means or looks like. These are the patches and bug fixes that keep our outdated operating system up and running, making it appear that significant progress is being made. But progress towards what, exactly?

The problem with these patches is that they mask the underlying cultural contradictions inherent in the system itself. When organizations with progressive politics can’t figure out how to (forgive me) “be the change they want to see,” it seems that a drastic cultural overhaul is indicated, on the order of a new operating system. I’m talking about a redefinition of our roles as women and men in the workplace; of our identities as workers; of employers’ expectations for how work gets done; of the very cultural platform we’re all sharing.

A radical reprogramming could take many forms. I personally like the open source model as a metaphor, in which software and systems get developed and refined over time by many individuals collaborating – rather than proprietary institutions owning a secret codebase. From a life/work perspective, this would entail having We the Workers develop and refine the system, rather than employers and policy makers telling us what “balance” or “effectiveness” should mean.

Men and women; single, partnered, or living in a community; children or childless, we’re all juggling so much more than our professional commitments. We’re each holding together some mix of household, parenting, relationship, community, creative, and other types of work. A new approach would prioritize all of this in balance with professional work, according to the needs of each individual or household unit.

One shift might involve changing the role of employers altogether. In this case, employers would serve up the work that needs to get done – and then get out of the way, facilitating a pay-for-expertise model in which professional work becomes just as flexible as all other types of work already have to be. So that where the work gets done; who’s there while it’s happening; when it happens –would all be determined by the worker on his or her terms, rather than the employer. (For an interesting discussion of how this might play out, and why this sort of model benefits employers too, see Joan Blades’ and Nanette Fonda’s The Custom Fit Workplace, an initiative of MomsRising.)

With a new operating system, the role of our government would be to provide the institutional scaffolding that underlies an effective operating system for us all: universal healthcare, guaranteed childcare, built-in protections for fair wages. Instead of feebly encouraging both employers and workers to “achieve a better balance,” this sort of essential support would put us all in a better position to develop our own models for how the various types of work in modern life get done 

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It’s true that policy tends to follow culture, rather than to define it. If we believe that a system overhaul is in order for our life/work practices, we need to start demanding it – through our government and our employers, certainly, but also by finding the ways we can enact an overhaul in our own lives. I’ve written in the past about my husband’s and my quest to redefine our household model as a kind of “culture hacking” – our own idiosyncratic, bottom-up approach to reorganizing the life/work model, and hopefully influencing culture change in some small way.

As a society, we have the technology to create a new operating system. As workers, the time has come to start demanding the flexibility and balance our lives necessitate. For women and for men, for the next generation of professionals and citizens and parents, we’ve got to start writing the new code now.

Misty McLaughlin is a parent by vocation, a nonprofit web consultant by trade, and a writer and seamstress by fits and starts. Among other topics, she’s passionate about exploring issues of gender and generation, helping other households to find cultural loopholes that allow them to make their own models, and promoting institutional support for rebooting our roles. Follower her on Twitter @mistymclaughlin.

Photo credit Digitalnative/Flickr

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