Do family-friendly policies keep parents at work?

Studies show many people are happier in the workplace than they are at home.
Philip Whiteley reports on how the ‘corporate village’ could cause divisions in
society

The revelation that family-friendly policies can result in staff spending
less time with their children throws up an unexpected factor in the perennial
work-life balance debate.

The surprise claim comes from author and Berkeley University professor Arlie
Hochschild. Her finding that large numbers of people are happier at work than
at home demands some serious attention. It is also influencing policy-makers.

Hochschild has studied the comprehensive family-friendly policies of a major
US corporation. She told an Industrial Society seminar last week that people
prefer to use the crêche than opt for shorter working hours.

While desire for promotion might lie behind some people’s desire to stay at
work longer, there are undoubtedly those who prefer this environment to home.

Free hugs

Compounding this, many employers are making the workplace more and more
comfortable, offering massages, evening classes, jogging trails and even free
hugs. The trend comes from the US but it is only a matter of time before the
the corporate village arrives here.

For many skilled staff their home is now a more "industrialised"
environment than the workplace. It is at work that they find a creative outlet,
comments Richard Reeves, director of futures at the Industrial Society.

By contrast a home with young children, with its routines and chores, can
resemble the atmosphere of an old-style factory.

Contradiction

"There is a contradiction here. We want to make work fantastic, but we
do not want to keep people there too long. Maybe we should be saying to
companies, ‘Do not give your staff a gym’," Reeves said.

But he predicts that such perks and comforts are there because of a tight
labour market, and will be quickly removed if unemployment rises.

Similarly, the option of help with family responsibilities is likely to be
offered only to skilled, senior staff who are in demand. Lower skilled
employees who are easily replaced are unlikely to be considered.

There is no doubt that the tensions will intensify – demographics and
company policies will see to that.

Hochschild points out that the problems in striking the right work-life
balance are a consequence of employers’ own decisions. Erosion of male earnings
and job insecurity has forced women to work.

"Forty-five per cent of the labour force is women. Capitalism would collapse
if you withdrew women," Hochschild said.

The tendency of male senior managers to shy away from talk of
"family-friendly" policies will become a dated approach.

Many firms are engaged in a war for talent and a large proportion of
talented people have caring responsibilities.

Further pressure comes from the ageing society and the progressive cutting
back of institutional provision for dependant elderly people. More and more
people have to care for relatives at home, and Hochschild notes that some of
the corporate villages offer help with elderly care.

But the emergence of company towns, not seen since the days of the Victorian
philanthropists, divides campaigners.

Hochschild, for one, disagrees with the concept. "I was talking with an
HR director about the work-life balance and he said, ‘We feel you can get away
from it all while you are here at the workplace’. This requires a red flag
warning."

Employment minister Tessa Jowell, the Government’s representative at last
week’s seminar, warned of the dangers of "a benign form of
institutionalisation" which, she said, had echoes of old-style mental
asylums.

Pressure

Policy-makers in the US and the UK are not happy about the situation. They
do not want middle-class children to grow up having little contact with their
parents, and they do not want working-class people denied access to benefits
such as childcare. Pressure is added by the TUC and Labour backbenchers, who
are campaigning for paid parental leave for those on low incomes.

The concern among campaigners and policy-makers is that societies will
become divided. Middle-class people, safe in their corporate campuses, will
become segregated from lower income groups who are denied such benefits.

Such a pattern suits many employers, who want to retain certain highly-skilled
people but do not feel they have to make an effort for others. But it bothers
many in the centre-left governments in the major economies – indeed, the
emergence of such divisions in society probably explains why the centre-left is
in power.

There is therefore an incentive on employers to improve their record on
family-friendly policies as the best way of staving off further legislation.

But the governments are boxed in, unwilling to annoy business with more tax
or regulation. Jowell avoided any reference to new measures.

She said the Government has to win the argument with business that
family-friendly policies and shorter working hours are effective.

"There is no purpose in thinking that altruism is going to have
influence on the great global corporations. We have to build the competitive
argument," she said.

Parental leave and the Working Time directive are as far as the Government
wishes to go in terms of forcing companies to let staff have more time with
their children.

Taxation

Whether or not staff actually want to raises a tricky issue that is beyond
the scope of the Department of Education and Employment and the DTI. But do not
be surprised to see the Treasury look at the taxation of in-house gyms and
jogging trails.

More imaginative proposals are likely to emerge from the Industrial Society,
where the new chief executive Will Hutton – who is close to the Government – is
stepping up the policy unit to develop new ideas on squaring the family circle.

The one certainty is that the work-life balance is now a mainstream issue
for politics and business.

www.indsoc.co.uk

Family-friendly policies – the failure to adopt

• Fear of damage to career prospects is still the main reason why
individuals continue with long working hours, according to a recent Industrial
Society report

• Employers are struggling because they fail to regard a work-life balance
as an issue for all employees, rather than just women with young children

• Firms are locked into a pattern of long hours, leading to stress and
"burn-out", which means that family-friendly hours can benefit
everyone

• As with other personnel practices, the society argues that it will
continue to be regarded as a fringe issue as long as the business benefits are
not spelled out. The work-life strategy "must be linked to core business
objectives"

www.indsoc.co.uk/whats_new/press

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