Tuesday, 12 March 2013

What can you do in the time available?


The Real Women's Issue: Time, a piece in The Wall Street Journal by Jody Greenstone Miller, is a breath of fresh air in the stifling and ideas-free Women 'n' Work debate. 

It takes headon the idea that all ambitious women can do in the workplace is 'lean in', a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg, to mean 'assert themselves more'. 

Miller argues that, in fact, organizations and institutions could change the notion of work, rather than thinking that the only model of success is working a 60+ hour week. Let's not forget that many women (ambitious or otherwise) work that many hours a week already. It's just that, once they have a family, they ain't gonna be doing it in their place of employment. 

So — change what 'work' is. Remember that it's carried out by human beings, who still operate in lunar cycles with circadian rhythms, aging year by year, reproducing awkwardly at around the time they reach full working capacity (go figure). 

'Work' is, presumably, an activity that keeps a system going, prevents a system from dysfunctioning, or starts up a new system. 'Work' must be whatever doesn't just happen by itself. It takes work to prevent a garden running wild, to produce food, or to keep a house or a street or a city clean. It takes work to produce books, and teach students. It takes work to sew all those cheap garments we're used to buying. It takes work to triage patients and then operate on them, or give them medication. It takes work to lose weight, not lose your temper, to fundraise, to avoid workplace politics. 

'Work' takes place in real time: time that is real by virtue of actually passing, never to come again, moving in just one direction.

Project-based working is fantastic, as is flexi-time (at least on paper). Trust is another key ingredient — if you take all that trouble to recruit, don't you want to trust your people? If you run your work around your people, the work will get done. If you treat them like battery chickens, they will lay for a little while, and then leave, and you'll have to train up a whole new bunch of expendable chickens. And they'll hate you for it. 

For my money, project-based work, trust, and a very calm working space are the biggest keys. You can add to that training project managers to help them communicate with clients and manage unreasonable expectations. Finally, transparent office calendar systems (online calendars can be abused and filled up with pointless meetings — you want something wall-mounted that everyone can use). Scheduling the most important meetings within school hours is perfectly feasible (most people are at their best then anyway, and need the time to write up notes etc at the end of the day). 

Ultimately all this points to the ideal of emphasizing quality over quantity. Leave quantity to statisticians and nerds, who love to aggregate and average, and unitize. People are not the same as the stuff that goes on shelves, or gets typed into computers. They are people. 

All of this thinking applies whether you are male or female. Women are forced to think about time more intensely and creatively, because they are the ones confronted with double and triple workloads once they have children, and so they have found ingenious ways round it. 

I don't really see how it's a "loss" if ambitious women leave workplaces that demand their souls. Those same women don't lie down and die, they start new businesses of their own, they work freelance and parttime, they grow far stronger networks than they had before, they welcome the notion of portfolio careers, they undertake project-based work around their families, they have more time to breathe, and they work until they regain control over their lives. Isn't that a key definition of success?  

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