Monday, February 24, 2014

Lean Back: How do we stop working too much?

“He’s a very good employee; he works late every day.”

How many times have you heard someone say something like this, implying that the amount of time someone works is indicative of the quality of their work?

In this week’s seminar on “Imposed vs. Desired Professional Identities: Embracing, Passing, Revealing and their Consequences,” Professor Erin Reid of Boston University looked at whether this idea is true, and how workers at a competitive management consulting firm feel about it.

Professor Reid starts with the idea that the most desirable worker, according to this organization, is one that is always available for and committed to their work---a profile that is assumed to describe men more than women, who supposedly prioritize home life more. And in fact, large firms often assess their personnel based not on the quality of their output, but on the time they put in and their attitude towards doing so; the idea of “billable hours” practically imposes this on an organization.

She finds, however, that even in this competitive, demanding organization, more than 57% of the workers feel a conflict with this norm: they don’t want the time commitment to harm their family lives, they don’t want their health to suffer, and fundamentally, they don’t think putting in more hours necessary means better work or a better life.

But the way they deal with this conflict differs. Those that openly reveal their preferences for normal working hours by asking for leave or telling colleagues about their non-office priorities, were often penalized by the firm: passed over for promotions or outright fired. But others simply passed off their preferences by making others think that they were working longer than they were, or that they were committed to office work mentally even while prioritizing non-office activities. These people were often rewarded by their colleagues and by management.

In the short term, this would indicate that to get the best of both worlds, employees should just pretend to be committed to 18-hour days while actually finding ways around it---ducking out early, making arrangements to work from home, being strategic about who in the office they tell and how.

But more consequentially, this conflict speaks to an American tendency to think that “more time at work” equals “better work,” which is not necessarily true---in fact it’s often the opposite. Not only do work-life balance and social relations suffer, but the quality of work itself suffers when people are overworked and exhausted. And contrary to common perceptions, women and men are realizing this at equal rates.

While the gender equality discourse has recently been dominated by Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortation to “Lean In”---i.e. to work as hard as you must to get a place at the table---Rosa Brooks writes that “We've managed to create a world in which ubiquity” in the office and the home “is valued above all.” This is an untenable recipe for disaster.

Instead, women “need to fight for our right to lean out...If we're going to fight the culture of workplace ubiquity, and the parallel and equally pernicious culture of intensive parenting, we need to do it together---and we need to bring [men] along, too. They need to lean out in solidarity, for their own sake as well as ours.”

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  2. I leaned back... and had an allergic reaction to my natural DNA... and realized, leaning back is as hard as leaning in when you are a woman from Niger who has gotten her foot into a school like Harvard... you cannot afford to lean back. Unfortunately. Fortunately. Leaning in however becomes a prison when the only option. I think the debate between leaning in or leaning back is futile. We should rather explore ways to allow women to choose WHEN to lean in and lean back while minimizing the allergic reactions I had to leaning back.

    Halimatou Hima (HKS, MPP'14)