Workplace culture

15 Jul

Recently, over a dinner with some friends, we entered into a discussion about workplace culture in NZ. These discussions stemmed from an article that was written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former US State Department official and Princeton Professor titled ‘Why women still can’t have it all’. The article told her story and experience of attempting to have a high-powered career and be a mother and wife. She claimed that this was an impossible task. The article caused a stir in the feminist world. An interesting perspective can be found in a response titled ‘Feminism didn’t lie to women about “having it all’. They criticise the way that she claims women to be ‘naturally’ more family oriented than men and her narrow definition of “having it all” – being a having a career and a family and that there is an underlying assumption that this is something that men have and women don’t.

In saying all of that, I am not writing this to get into debates about what feminism looks like today. What I would like to discuss is the conversations that were spurred around the dinner table as a result. In considering the current workplace culture in NZ, we decided that there are issues that impact both men and women alike and as a result the wellbeing of people in their jobs.
There is still a culture of work in NZ where the expectation is that you work more than your allocated hours without extra pay. The majority of people I have spoken to about this since thinking about writing this blog have said that they will often stay at work past ‘clock off’ time because they feel that they will be considered slack if they leave at 5.30pm. What I want to know is, since when did having good time management and being efficient at your work become slack?

While on an occasional basis, when there are times which call for us to go the extra mile, most would not begrudge this. This is separate to a consistent expectation whereby to prove your dedication to the business, or because of an unrealistic workload, one is expected to regularly work late.

This gets more pervasive as people move into higher positions within companies/government agencies. As a result, many of us who were sitting at that table have no desire to get into those higher positions because of the limits it places on our time outside of work. We choose to value the things that we do outside work over moving into higher positions where your time is consistently restricted the time you are expected to spend on your work.

For women and men who wish to raise a family, a choice has to be made between time with family and progressing in their career. As a result, there is a pool of talented and empathetic people that are not moving into higher positions. They are potentially also the people who would be willing to change the structure and pervasive expectations within current workplaces.

An observation we noted is that it tends to be the people who are most competitive and driven who get into the higher positions rather than those who are more likely to look out for those around them and make sure that people aren’t working too hard. With organisational culture stemming from the top down, this can make for workplaces where people don’t necessarily enjoy being there and are less likely to become friends.

Yet the positive well-being of workers is well known to lead to better overall productivity and creativity – recognising this, some extremely successful companies invest in their workers well-being – for example google gives their staff 20 percent of their time on a project of their choosing.

Pondering on how we felt about the types of workplaces we would like to work in, we wondered if this was perhaps something that will change with our generation. The answer we reached was potentially not. Those that have the power to change the work culture are those that make it into management positions and they are the ones that advance and succeed in that kind of environment so they have no incentive to change it.

Potentially as women get into higher positions we are more likely to change the culture of a place. In the controversial article mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Slaughter claimed that “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.” However, that is a big assumption to make and research has shown that instead of this happening, women are actually just not going for those top positions. It is also a big ask for women to shoulder this responsibility. Changes in workplace culture that lead to greater wellbeing at work and outside of work should come from both men and women.

Allowing people to job share is one possible solution that could lead to people being able to take more control of the hours that they work and the balance of making the essential nature of work also fit within the other things that are essential to us as humans – doing things we love to do, spending time with family, further education, creative pursuits, taking breaks or whatever your particular case may be. Another bonus is that it leads to more job opportunities and therefore less unemployment.

In the meantime, why don’t you try this happiness at work survey and see how things shape up for you.


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