In the family way

In the family way

How real are workplace changes to deliver ‘family friendly’ environments?

My time as a young dad passed a while back but I have been observing various people around me and in the industry as they embark on parenthood and I’m struck by how completely frazzled they seem. They are tired, worn out and stressed almost without exception. These people don’t work in dark satanic mills. They are white collar people, sometimes senior managers and, despite all the talk of ‘family friendly’ working environments, I can’t help concluding the role of the working parent is tougher now than it has ever been.

I have no doubt many of the efforts to make life easier for new parents have been well meaning, but there are other factors at work, especially for white collar workers.

Cost high

Hand in hand with the family friendly and ‘work/life balance’ drives of many corporations, restructuring has flattened management structures and ripped out redundant capacity. Technology has created increased flexibility and automated many mundane, repeatable processes. All effort is made to maximise profit and that requires organisations to maximise output and productivity.

For the knowledge worker, the cost has been high. In practice, flexible working hours and the ability to work from home as if you are still on the company network means the new parent has an opportunity to do everything they used to accomplish at the work place in between changing nappies, feeds, visits to the doctor and everything else. When the lucky parent returns to work, they will find a good amount of the work they would have done still waiting for them. Organisations are now so lean, there is simply no one else to do it – no one to hand it over to.


While doing some research on how IT had changed our social lives, I came across the Silicon Valley Cultures Project, which has conducted a series of studies to determine exactly how IT is changing us and, quite frankly, as with most so-called labour saving technologies, the net result seems disappointing. The project finds that despite telecommuting’s early promise of ‘a way to get ahead’ and increased flexibility, we are now saturated in information and telecommuting is now about not falling behind. We simply have to work harder and longer every year.

For knowledge workers, the task is more difficult still because they deal mostly in ‘unstructured’ information. Some believe it is in this information that the real value of many organisations lies. It’s hard to manage. It needs to be constantly tended. It doesn’t go away and you never really get on top of it. That’s a lot of responsibility and stress on its own.

So what do we do? We deploy more technology to help us get by. To make us more efficient in the mistaken belief once again it will allow us to get ahead.

Another finding of the project was we now have ‘networked families’. We relate to them by email and by mobile phone. We need to be flexible. We need to be able, generally speaking, to cancel family activities at a moment’s notice.

I’m sure family friendly practices and policies have gone some way towards alleviating these issues in some organisations, but in the end, the pressure of competition and profit maximisation will win.

I’ve never seen a senior manager genuinely happy about having someone go on parental leave no matter what company policy says.

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