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Jul
23
2005

I can’t help being cynical about companies’ policies to supposedly balance home and work life. Especially now as a stay-at-home mother and GDP drain, it’s fun to criticize. Telecommuting? An excuse to have an employee constantly on call at home. Part-time work? Part-time pay for time-and-a-half effort. On-site daycare? Squeeze some extra time out of the employee while having the chance to brainwash the offspring into a perfectly calibrated future robot employee. No, wait, that’s surely going a little far.
So anyway, I was surprised when I was reading a recent, interesting article in Time magazine: it talked about Best Buy’s approach to balancing work and non-work life and I was actually impressed. Although some details of how the company’s policy works are missing, basically it seems Best Buy allows employees to act like grownups—looking at the work completed without requiring it be done in a certain place or at certain hours.
Not all employees have switched to that flexible approach, but when they do a whole team switches over together. That’s key, because one of the problems with other flexible schemes implemented for individuals is that the workplace can pit parents against non-parents, often with both groups feeling dumped on. This way, it’s not the parents only who are seen as benefiting, while the parents themselves feel they’re working harder to compensate; whether you want to take time to paste stamps in your album in the morning, or attend a teacher conference in the afternoon, it’s OK, and you’re in theory only judged on your output.


In fact, one childless employee is figuring out how to prove her worth under the new system:

“It made me very nervous,” (the executive) says. Without children, she once had an advantage–she could always be the first one in and the last one out. “I had all this panic,” she says. “Everything we knew about success was suddenly changing.”

Naturally there are other problems too. Managers still feel administrative assistants need to be chained to their desks. And Best Buy hasn’t figured out how to include store salespeople.
And of course, with work and home linked, with employees lugging cell phones and laptops everywhere, how do you keep work from spreading too far into your home time? Although it’s not clear that any company sees that as a real problem.
But what gave me hope was that Best Buy seems to have some of the most useful human resources employees I’ve ever heard of, and the company’s actually thinking about and trying to address some of the difficulties.
For example, employees are helped to change their attitudes when their group switches to the flexible approach. Anyone who has dealt with a gossipy workplace (all of them) will appreciate this one:

The deprogramming begins with what Best Buy calls “sludge sessions,” because they are where employees dig out the cultural barriers to change–the jokes and comments that reinforce overwork. “It’s like, coming in at 10 o’clock and someone says, ‘Wow, I wish I could come in at 10,’” (a manager) says. “It’s really hard to let that bounce off and not be defensive.”

According to the article, the new way of working is truly life changing for some workers.

Some employees break down and cry in … training sessions (for the new system). “People in the baby-boom generation realize what they gave up to get ahead in the workplace, and a lot of times it’s their families. They realize that it doesn’t have to be that way,” says (a human-resources executive), her eyes tearing up. In particular, men thank (the people running) the sessions, for giving them permission to spend more time with their families. “They know now they can do it and not be judged,” says Thompson.

See, work-family balance programs aren’t just useful for working moms. Working dads can be freed up too. As I know we’re all aware, feminism, which has helped create a need for and to some extent legitimized these programs, can be about increasing the options for all humans.
Does any worker not feel harried these days? Couldn’t everyone really use an old-fashioned wife equivalent to take care of the home front? Even in the decreasing number of traditional one-earner married households, the dad probably likes to catch some little league games and maybe even see that wife sometimes.
The Best Buy program is just a start. There’s no mention of whether meaningful part-time work is any easier under the system. That’s an option some parents would certainly like. But I also know at least one highly educated mother who started working part-time after having kids; she would have been delighted to scale back before the kids came along if childrearing weren’t considered the only legitimate reason to do so at her company.
Workers of the world aren’t uniting anytime soon. But maybe some of them can take a few minutes to share a cup of coffee.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 2:19 AM | Permalink

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