Ann Bookman, executive director of MIT’s Workplace Center at the Sloan School, wanted to know if Americans are losing a sense of community in this world of increasing job demands and an around-the-clock economy. So she spent nearly five years studying the lives of employees at three Massachusetts biotechnology firms to determine how today’s workers balance the demands of their jobs with the demands of home life and community involvement.
Biotech, she says, is emblematic of the 21st century workplace — knowledge-based, research-intense, and technology driven. Employees bear the strain of this competitive and fragile setting; they work long hours yet are still stalked by the specter of job insecurity. So, when the biotech workplace, like those in many other industries, cannot reward loyalty and hard work with security, Bookman found that employees turn to other “communities” to meet their personal and family needs. Although a small number of the workers she interviewed said they relied on coworkers for support, the majority looked to extended families, neighborhoods, and faith-based institutions for a range of practical, emotional, and social supports.
For many workers in the new economy, she says, the workday is growing longer; the line between home and work is disappearing; and stress is increasing because there is never enough time for both work and family demands. Also, there are longer commutes and higher expectations for job performance.
There is a popular belief that the “time bind” affecting working families has meant a decline in volunteerism and community involvement. But Bookman’s research revealed that biotech workers actually are not giving up community involvement.
It’s just that they are developing new ideas about what “community” means — and a new focus for volunteerism. For example, she found that working parents may no longer be joining the PTA, but they will arrange more flexible work hours to volunteer at a child care center or to coach soccer. Or, maybe they’ll get together with others to develop an after-school program to address the disconnect between work hours and school hours that leaves many children alone at home in the afternoon.
NEW SUPPORT SYSTEMS
In her recent book, Starting in Our Own Backyards: How Working Families Can Build Community and Survive the New Economy, she tells us that work/family problems and low levels of job security are propelling families to look for new support systems and to build new forms of community. But like most adaptation happening in real-time, these efforts are often invisible. Her research gives visibility to this reinvention of community, and links local efforts in a variety of urban and suburban communities to the need to mobilize families to work on broader solutions at the state and federal level.
For example, she says, extended family is essential to helping young families achieve the American dream, from providing the capital to purchase a home to taking care of the children while both parents are at work. She says, “In the 70s and 80s, it took two earners for a family to attain a middle class life style, whereas today it takes two generations.”
In the eighties it was “juggling,” in the nineties it was “balancing.” Today, social scientists like Bookman are calling for an “integration” of work and family. And family pressures must be seen as social, not personal, problems requiring social solutions. Her book calls on employers and government to adopt a new ethic of social responsibility for families.
In her view, the workplace is still organized around the “ideal worker” norm — the breadwinner man with a wife at home to take care of all the personal and family issues. While some employers recognize the problems endemic to this outdated model, most have not yet reorganized themselves to any degree that addresses the problem. Indeed, a profound rethinking of our attitudes is required to recognize that workplaces must change and acknowledge that workers do have lives and commitments outside of their jobs.
That’s where Bookman and the MIT Workplace Center, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Center, hopes to have an impact. The Center is conducting research and helping to find ways to connect the way workplaces are organized with the realities of family life. Its mission is to collaborate with workers and employers to develop ways to transform the workplace to be more supportive of employees’ work and family lives.
Bookman and the Workplace Center are honing in on a combination of strategies that include developing corporate policies that take into account that “people do have lives outside of work,” to developing strategies that force us to rethink our assumptions about workplace culture and work performance.
“We need to challenge the underlying attitudes that privilege paid work over family care, ‘face time’ in the office over doing one’s job at home or in another flexible arrangement. What does constitute work excellence, how many hours you are sitting at your desk?” Bookman asks.
She looks to, among other workplace strategies, redesigning jobs and work processes to take the requirements of the work and people’s family situations into consideration. “We must move away from the current culture of individual accommodation — which only builds resentment and guilt among coworkers — to a more systemic approach that takes the needs of an entire work team into account. We need to develop environments in which people can be very productive, but also feel supported in their lives outside the workplace.”
Driving social change in the workplace has been her vocation and avocation her whole adult life. Bookman, a social anthropologist, was appointed by President Clinton during his first term to serve as Policy and Research Director for the Women’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor. During that time, she also headed the bipartisan Commission on Family and Medical Leave established by Congress to study the impact of the FMLA on employers and employees. The surveys conducted for the commission showed that the FMLA was not the burden to business that many had predicated, and that the new law actually had positive outcomes for families and employers.
Her work in Washington illuminated where the nation needs to go as a whole — we need to better support working families with flexible work arrangements and supports for child care and elder care. Bookman says: “If our country can create private sector and public policies that support working families, we will not only advance the well-being of children and families, but will also — in the long-run — build a more productive workforce and a stronger economy.”