Students in Dr. Stephen Sweet’s Sociology of Work and Family course at Ithaca College were encouraged to write editorials on how work-family practices can make sense not only for working families, but also for employers. The blog posts in this “Millennial Voice” series were identified by their instructor and peers as offering strong cases for the business benefits of work-family practices.

Each post is informed by 35 articles read as part of class assignments, as well as an additional 10 to 20 articles independently researched by the authors.  Links to relevant references offer additional exploration for interested readers.

Today’s post was written by Alessandra Tantawi. Alessandra is a senior sociology major at Ithaca College. Her career goal is to help people see all their potential; particularly young people within public schools who tend to fall in between the cracks. She hopes to one-day help mend the communication gap between teachers and students by receiving a master’s degree in primary education from Ithaca College, class of 2016; after, she hopes to pursue her MSW at UC Berkeley. Alessandra is also considering applying to City Year after she receives her master’s degree in primary education while applying to UC Berkeley.

As social policies and cultural norms relating to work and family commitments continue to shift, researchers have noted the limited availability of flexible work options. One stumbling block is that many employers continue to evaluate employee performance under the dated notion of the “ideal worker.” This archetype assumes that workers have a stay-at-home spouse or partner who can assume responsibility for family demands.  With this assumption in mind, employers also assume that workers can labor undistracted and uninterrupted, and be always on call. However, this ideal worker framework can lead to major disadvantages when it comes to the sustainability of an organization’s success and revenue achievement. The current ideal worker template is out-of-date, inefficient, and costly to employers. Employers could benefit from reevaluating their approaches in assessing their employee’s productivity levels in the efforts to sustain a more productive and successful organization.

Why is the ideal worker template relied on so heavily?  In part it might be because of existing laws and workplace regulations.  In 1938, the intention of The Fair Labor Standards Act was to protect employees from engaging in too much work by requiring overtime pay. This reinforced the eight-hour, five-day workweek as the accepted norm during a time when the workforce was male dominated with homemaking wives. In today’s work places there exist “time cages” in which taken-for-granted rules, regulations, norms, and practices mandate the current culture that equates long work hours with productivity and commitment. But beyond this, the overarching culture embraces the idea of full time work, and some organizations encourage employees to go above and beyond the expected work-hour commitments. This can lead employees to feel strained and overworked, which prevents them from performing to the best of their abilities.

Employers should rethink this notion that rigid, unceasing, full time work maximizes productivity; when employees are required to be in the office for a set amount of hours, it can be expected that the some portion of their time will not be dedicated to their work. Furthermore, research has shown that the ideal worker expectations are costing organizations valuable employee retention because of their inability to perform to the best of their ability while balancing family obligations. This is due to the unattainable expectations that the ideal worker framework places upon employees. Positive work-time innovation must focus on what employees are accomplishing rather than the fixed amount of time they spend in a particular location is a promising path to reduce turnover.

However, many organizations continue to operate under the cultural assumption that employees are available and can comply with customary office expectations such as the eight-hour five-day workweek (or more) with no personal demands. This is exceptionally challenging for parents, particularly women who already face significant disadvantages in the workforce. For example: women who have children soon after receiving their Ph.D are much less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children at the same points in their careers. This exemplifies the prescriptive stereotypes in which many employers assume that mothers are more dedicated to their children than their fathers. However, this assumption remains present due to the fact that most organizations sustain a culture where men do not feel comfortable taking provided leave and women feel expected to while also uncomfortable utilizing family leave due to stigma. This current practice perpetuated by most institutions maintains the ideal worker framework and disadvantages potential talent retention, which in effect hinder an organization’s success.

It is important to recognize that in order to change workplace practices, it is necessary to change both policies and the attitudes of managers and workers. The following research exemplifies how this can happen: Swedish corporations have become more encouraging of men taking parental leave, but mention that a supportive organization not only provide formal policies but also create an environment in which fathers receive informal support from administration regarding their decision to take leave. In addition, particularly in an educated and skilled workforce (such as academia or corporate businesses), employers want to attain retention of their employees due to the costs of recruitment and training. Therefore, organizations that wish to sustain talented employees must re-evaluate their assumptions regarding personal identities outside of the workplace and value their employees for their abilities to accomplish their work efficiently. This requires employers to adapt flexible work policies in order to invest in the future success of the organization. Employers who create meaning and respect within the work place shape the well-being of employees and therefore the overall productivity of the organization, which prevents costly turnover.

It is time for employers to consider that causes of turnover, error rates, absenteeism, and other productivity-related concerns may stem from outdated workplace practices, not workers. Employers must re-evaluate their ideal worker expectations in order to build a successful and stable organization. With innovative and flexible work arrangements, employers can facilitate productivity and efficiency. Rethinking the ideal worker archetype is not only beneficial for families, it is valuable for employers as well.

photo credit: thinkstockphotos.com