It’s time to overhaul the concept of the ‘ideal’ worker. Employers who evaluate staff on performance rather than presence will ultimately win the war for talent, writes Professor Julie Cogin.

Family-friendly work practices have received more attention from companies over the last decade due to the increased participation of women in the workforce, dual-career couples and single parent households. In response, many organisations profess to be a destination of choice for women and cite flexible work schedules, opportunities to work from home, job share at all levels and other progressive programs to back up this assertion.

The problem is that while family-friendly policies can help people manage multiple work and personal responsibilities, the availability of initiatives alone does not address fundamental aspects of a company or parts of it, which can inhibit staff at all levels from successfully balancing career and family. To properly evaluate the success of these initiatives is to disentangle policy availability from take-up and the effects on talent attraction and retention.

My own experiences have been that family-friendly policies, irrespective of whether they are progressive or not, do not account for an organisational culture that impedes women from using the options available. I have observed many cases where women who take advantage of such policy options and thus visibly demonstrate interest in family and personal life, face negative judgments regarding their lack of commitment to a team, the customer experience or their employer. I have also spoken to women who are dissuaded from utilising such schemes for fear of a stigma associated with having carer responsibilities. This fear is not unfounded as evidenced by many careers that have derailed from taking advantage of family- friendly programs.

My research in this area illustrates that key attributes shaping take-up and positive outcomes of family-friendly work practices are the collective characteristics of a firm’s senior leadership team. Specifically, the attributes and behaviour of the top team penetrates layers to influence how line managers and employees frame problems, what goals they perceive are important and consequently the level of support or enthusiasm line managers allocate to various initiatives.

Apart from the most obvious characteristics around participation rates of women in senior ranks, equity in compensation, and advancement of women with families, other more subtle behaviours reduce the effectiveness of family-friendly programs. For example, informal norms that international experience is a requirement to get ahead, after hours or late in the day meetings are reasonable, and allocation of substantial work late on Friday for a Monday morning return sends signals about what the organisation really regards as important.

Senior leaders being connected 24/7 can unintentionally sends a message that employees should also be involved in work matters outside normal hours. Moreover, it is often the case that employees who engage in this way are regarded as high performers with superior levels of commitment. Worse, if these types of behaviours are repeated regularly a culture may be solidified that is very difficult to uproot.

Despite the expanding discourse on the topic there is a policy-practice gap, because the concept of the “ideal” worker is still associated with total dedication to the job and does not acknowledge caretaking responsibilities. As a result there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in how work is done. Here are some assumptions for this new paradigm that we could begin with.

  • All employees have interests outside work.
  • All employees will need to adjust the time they spend doing paid and unpaid work at various stages of their lives.
  • All workers are responsible for achieving desired outcomes.

At the end of the day, women and men have increasing caretaker responsibilities outside work. With more dual-couple careers and an ageing population resulting in growing numbers of employees with responsibilities for older relatives it is now an issue for both women and men. I believe that the war for talent may be the most important factor for future business competitiveness and cultures of flexibility where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence, will help determine which companies recruit and retain top talent.

First published in Women’s Agenda as part of AGSM’s sponsorship of the 2016 Women’s Agenda Leadership awards.

Professor Julie Cogin, Director AGSM @ UNSW Business School and Deputy Dean UNSW Australia Business School, AGSM Fellow.

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