This week the Council on Contemporary Families released a brief by Sarah Damaske: in it she reports that work lowers people’s stress levels (as measured by the stress hormone cortisol) while at home it is higher. She called for consideration of new work/life balance policies, such as ROWE–results-only work environment. In connection with that I present to you a profile of a Gender & Society study on that topic. I first posted this column in 2010.
Here’s how it works: if you call it a “diversity initiative” or a “work family intervention” or stuff like that there’s the chance that you will see resistance to the project of, well, promoting diversity, or creating a family-friendly work place. On campuses, all the earnest and the marginalized check it out and everyone else goes, “what? Oh, I don’t think I got that email.”
You already know this intuitively, but a study in the current issue of Gender & Society (abstract only) tells the story of a workplace initiative that starts with the notion that framing matters.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota hung out at Best Buy corporate headquarters while Best Buy instituted a program that is not called “let’s try to reduce the sexism in our every day practices at work” — instead it is called “Results-Only Work Environment” (ROWE) : On the ROWE website they explain their project like this:
“Results-Only Work Environment is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results – increasing the organization’s performance while cultivating the right environment for people to manage all the demands in their lives…including work.”
The program was created by Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressler , and it has gotten positive recognition in BusinessWeek (twice!) and you can also hear about it on a recent NPR segment. It basically involves a flexible workplace.
The UM researchers (including Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen at the Flexible Work and Well Being Center) explain in their article how the focus on results reduced resistance. “ROWE was not presented as a work-family initiative or a gender equity initiative; rather it was strategically framed as a smart business move… [the founders] felt that a gender or work-family framing would lead to the initiative’s marginalization.”
You see, ROWE is about achieving excellence. This isn’t (merely) Foucauldian. This is what any diversity project of any sort is all about, right? ROWE–which has has been adopted by other companies, too–reports a 35 percent reduction in waste and a 90 percent reduction in voluntary worker turnover.
But here’s the other part of the story: The program didn’t reduce resistance completely–especially among men managers. But it created a different kind of conversation because the analysis wasn’t explicitly about gender or diversity or accommodating people with exceptional needs. It was about an alternative approach to work that relied less on conventions of time use and more on outcomes. The resistance heard by the researchers was to the ways that the program was challenging what’s called the ideal worker norm.
What is the ideal worker norm? Well, you know what it is, it is the way you were brought up to work. You’re there or feel you should be there as much as possible (long hours). You are busy all the time, doing doing doing (look busy!). You are ready to drop everything when someone says there’s a panic (excel at “fire drills”). Thing is, this way of working is (1) not necessary for success and (2) damaging to people’s ability to balance work and other aspects of their lives. Joan Williams writes about the ideal worker norm wonderfully in Unbending Gender (2001). She shows us just how gendered this approach is, as it builds on an outdated model of family life.
By saying (as ROWE does), oh this norm of how we work (excessive hours, fire drills, et c) is a “choice” it says we can make other choices. This means that we can de-naturalize the sneaky connection of men as superior workers (especially men who can hide or evade their other personal responsibilities). And we start to allow men as well as women to make contributions and be achievers in all the domains of their lives.