Q&A with Lotte Bailyn, Ph.D.
Lotte Bailyn is a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Her specializations include work life issues and flexible work. She is the author of Breaking the Mold: Redesigning Work for Productive and Satisfying Lives (Cornell, 2006), among other publications.
She talked with LMW on June 24, 2008.
Where have we made progress in work life issues?
The progress is that it’s on the radar screen. It didn’t always have a name. I don’t like the work life title because life consists of work, but that seems to be where it’s coming down. Companies are beginning to take it seriously—at least some companies—and there’s lots of research going on.
What can employers do?
There’s a tendency, I think, to feel that one size fits all in the sense that if we just put these flexibility opportunities into place, everything will work. But how do you deal with people at different stages of their life? Within each stage, people have very differing needs. So how do you get the best out of people at all of these stages?
Is there a risk in focusing solely on policies or tactical issues?
I think the emphasis on policies is very important, but it’s not sufficient to really deal with the issues. We’re not connecting this up to people’s family and personal concerns.
We still, I think, are dealing with flexibility on an individual basis. I think if we don’t bring it to a systemic level, it’s not going to solve these issues.
Somehow we have to assume that everybody has constraints, and we have to build that into our thinking.
It’s not only mothers. It’s not only caretakers. It’s everybody who has or should have a personal life. Because what we know about innovation and creativity is that people are better at that when they have timeouts, when they’re doing different kinds of things.
So strictly from an effectiveness point of view, we should be allowing and actually reinforcing people’s lives outside of work—that could be community involvement, family care, or avocations. And we should recognize that people actually work better when they’re able to do that.
Do you have a perspective on how we ended up here?
We tend to think—particularly in this country—very individualistically, particularly about family issues. So we see children as a totally individual choice. And if you make that choice, you’ve got to take care of it. It’s not a social good as in some societies.
And then also American business has never seen its employees really as an asset. They see them as a cost. So the minute there’s some trouble, what do they do? Lay people off.
Employees sometimes would be willing—if management was also willing—to have everybody cut back somewhat on hours and wages. It’s an alternative way to deal with cost issues, rather than just laying some people off and putting more of a burden on the people who remain.
Any challenges at the core of the flexible work issue?
If managers are serious, they have to model it. If the manager works ten hours a day, telling his people, “I don’t mind when you go home,” it’s not going to work.
It’s really critical that the top people get out there and model the notion that effective work does not mean this overload and working all the time. That’s not effective. There’s fatigue. You make mistakes and you get rigid because you don’t have time to think about it.
Yeah. So that trickles down.
Yes, and then those behaviors—positive or negative—will trickle down. The manager may believe in flexible work and reasonable hours, but if it goes against what he’s doing—in the end it won’t work. In the end, the person who stays and works those long hours will be seen as the better performer.
So it isn’t just a matter of the sideways glance or the glance at the watch. Even if they’re espousing it, but not modeling it, there’s no impact.
Then it’s hard for their people to really believe they’re going to get ahead by leaving the office.
You’ve got to believe. Usually when you introduce flexible arrangements on a trial basis, that’s when you discover that it actually makes the work more effective.
And people won’t believe that just by being told. They have to experience it. They have to see their managers doing it.