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The Pandemic Has Exposed the Fallacy of the “Ideal Worker”

May 11, 2020
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北京快3With most of us working from home these days, Americans’ workday has increased by 40% – – the largest increase in the world. Yes, I fact-checked that. I couldn’t believe it either. The problem with all this busyness and productivity is that it comes at a huge price. Many employees are now doing the work of three or more people. They’re doing their own jobs, their childcare worker’s jobs, and their children’s teacher’s jobs. Yet, many employers seem oblivious. I hear reports of companies cheerfully assuring their employees, and themselves, that everyone is working at, or close to, 100%. Why don’t more managers see the problem here?

It’s because there’s still a widespread reverence for the “ideal worker.” We commonly define the ideal worker as someone who starts working in early adulthood and continues, full-time and full force, for 40 years straight. The concept reflects a breadwinner-homemaker model that dates back to the Industrial Revolution and functioned fairly well through the 1960s, until women began entering the formal workforce in greater numbers. But the “ideal worker” norm has long exacted a higher toll from women—who not only did their day jobs but were also expected to deal with responsibilities for their families and households.

Further Reading

However, it’s not just women who suffer under the burden of the “ideal worker” norm. According to a recent survey, . Perhaps more surprising, so are . My organization runs a hotline for workers who encounter discrimination based on family care responsibilities, and we hear all the time from men whose organizations have outdated leave policies that give the “primary caregiver” months off but give far less time off to the “secondary caregiver.” We’re all seeing how the pandemic can serve to level the playing field as some men take on more domestic responsibilities than they used to. This is not to deny that women are doing more; the point is that very often neither men nor women are the ideal workers of times past. Today, a key divide is between parents and non-parents. “I’ve noticed that there is a huge split among my trial lawyer colleagues. Those without children are, for the most part, getting a lot done. Those of us with kids at home are litigating as if sinking in quicksand,” said Gordon Kaupp, a lawyer in San Francisco.

To be sure, we’re seeing the erosion of the ideal of an employee whose family responsibilities are kept tastefully out of sight. Before COVID, many parents quietly skulked off to attend the school play or coach a soccer game, workers nursed their babies in cars parked outside factories, and adult children slid away unobtrusively to take elders to the doctor. Now there’s a lot less of a taboo because you can’t hide it. In fact, that taboo has now shifted: men who are old-fashioned enough to be embarrassed when their kids walk in, like , are now ridiculed (perhaps unfairly, if he was just reflecting others’ expectations of him). COVID has made visible the conflict between an older generation of ideal workers and younger men who see the good father as someone who is involved in his children’s daily care. An in-house lawyer at a large company told me: “It has really humanized our leaders, because they are all sending messages about how they are coping with their kids, dogs, and 72-year-old mother, trying to make it clear that we are all in this together.”

If there was ever a time to put to rest the old-fashioned notion of the ideal worker, it’s now. Post-pandemic, let’s resculpt workplace ideals so they reflect people’s lives today—not half a century ago. If you are focused on employee engagement, this is the path forward. (If you aren’t, you should be: a recent study found that disengaged .)

北京快3The first step is to institutionalize telework. I and other advocates have long known that the main barrier  to widespread adoption was a failure of imagination. That’s over. Under COVID, many jobs that were “impossible to do remotely” went remote with little transition time and modest outlays. Three things happened in the past month to make the unthinkable doable. Companies have now invested the time and money necessary for seamless remote access. Older employees who were not as tech-adept have now invested the time to figure it all out. And supervisors have figured out how to supervise people without physically breathing down their necks. The unthinkable has become not just thinkable but mundane.

But we have to recognize that long-term telecommuting is different from the crisis-related working-from-home that’s now widespread. Telework requires having childcare during work hours, and a setup that allows for undistracted attention to work. For hourly workers in states like California, telework also requires employers to ensure statutorily mandated worker protections like meal and rest breaks. Most employers will also want controls to set limits on overtime.

At a deeper level, companies need to get analytical about the optimal role of remote work going forward. Lots of research shows that telecommuting typically makes workers more productive – not surprising given the amount of sports chatter around the water cooler. Remote work also makes people more engaged and satisfied and less likely to quit. Remote workers also often work longer hours – not surprising since 

Don’t assume that telework is an all-or-nothing proposition. For many jobs and companies, the challenge will be to find the right balance of telework and on-site work. What many knowledge workers need is spurts of unstructured interaction北京快3, followed by hours of quiet time to execute— time that’s often more productive done away from the office. Finding the optimal combination of telework and on-site work will vary from company to company, job to job, and person to person.

As a smart person once said, never let a good crisis go to waste. Let’s not waste this one. Instead, let’s work together to ensure that a silver lining of this vast and frightening pandemic is a new definition of the worker as someone who’s ambitious, focused, and committed—but who must also balance work obligations with caregiving responsibilities. When 30 million kids are out of school, employers can’t just ignore that.

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Joan C. Williams is a professor and the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. Her newest book is 


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