I attended a work/life balance forum the other day.
It was an event that was a first step – I hope – in addressing the relentless anxieties around the gendered juggling of work, caring for others, and quality of life.
These are endemic struggles in contemporary work life and appear in sharp relief in academia. There’s an expectation that universities should be better at this kind of stuff, that they’d be more aware, and willing to implement changes or embed structures that bring about change. It’s a fair expectation.
Much of the discussion at the forum centred on efficient work practices, and setting boundaries for ourselves and others around our work. For example, until someone on the panel told us, I had no idea our university had guidelines for recommended meeting times: between 9:30am and 3pm. It makes good sense, and is a very simple way to make the workplace more inclusive.
One of the forum’s panel members is at a senior executive level and passionate about the possibilities of working out a balance between home life and workload commitments through the flexible work options offered by universities. He encouraged staff to speak with their managers about creating better working lives by considering these options.
I was heartened to hear this. Universities, and many other organisations, talk big about being ‘family friendly’ workplaces dedicated to offering flexible working options, but these options are rarely well exposed and taken for a turn around the academic block. It’s like having parents’ feeding or mother’s expressing rooms on campus at universities – given much lip-service and expected to be there but rarely as convenient as might be necessary (see my relatively considered rant about this issue in my personal blog, A Simple Story).
I’m all for Team Flexibility. It’s a huge reason why I returned to the academic side of the university. As a professional staff member for over three years, I had a great amount of autonomy and an excellent working relationship with my line manager…and I still couldn’t swing a regular work-from-home day. It was not the done thing. I could work away from my desk all day but I could not work from home. It’s a puzzle to me to this day.
As an academic, I have a set work-from-home day each week, and other times by negotiation. I’m often giving workshops, or working outside the cafe strip or in the library on campus. If I’m in the city for something, I’ll often just work the remainder of the day from home because trekking out to my campus just to be seen to sit at a particular desk is ludicrous. I’m lucky to have a manager who understands that. Many don’t.
Basically, unless I have to front an actual roomful of researchers or attend an old-school meeting (face-to-face in material space), my work can be done anywhere that has the tech to support me. We’re talking access to wi-fi and my laptop or a desk-top set-up somewhere. That’s it.
Many of my academic peers are in this situation, barring those who may need to spend time in labs, clinics, or hospitals. And, even then, much of their work can be located flexibly otherwise.
In my rainbow unicorn world, all university workers who can and want to work from other sites or at different hours, should be able to as long as it still allows them to do the work they need to. Many, many people within universities do not understand or appreciate the opportunities that desired flexible work offers. It shouldn’t detract from productivity and, in fact, it can really add to it.
There’s a lot of cultural change that needs to take place to overcome the hard-wired panopticon model of understanding our workplaces and colleagues. There is a small-minded adherence to the belief that you must witness a person doing their work for them to be doing their work. I conflated these issues in my rant against open-plan offices, mostly because the new corporatised workplaces of our universities meant fishbowl offices and those awfully synergistic open-plan spaces that strove to enhance collaboration and affirm team identities… yet they only seem share colds and lurgies, increase levels of stress and distraction, and offer no appreciable up-lift in productivity. (Yes, I still hate open plan.)
Even if staff are delivering on all their commitments and performing perfectly in every way, not being in the office or around the corridors is read as ‘not-working’ or being a less invested (and capable?) colleague. This can lead to negative effects on careers as a whole, especially for women, who are more likely to be working flexibly.
At most universities in Australia, if you want to make a consistent change to standard work presence or times (e.g. 48/52 model, change your work fraction, change your working times), you have to make a business case for it and present it to your manager, who may or may not accept that case. If they don’t accept it, they usually need to present you with their reasons for not doing so. You have a legal right to request flexibility, and they have the right to refuse.
The reasons for a business case you might make, however, can be telling and demonstrate the limited ways universities want to extend flexible work options. They are very dependent on provable instances of why you might want to change status quo work arrangements. For example, taking into consideration caring responsibilities and being sensitive to school day timetables, or a chronic illness and what that might mean for a staff member’s working hours. These are all important and hard-fought gains, and need to be embedded deeper within academic cultures. You should be able to ask for and receive permission in these situations without penalty.
One key reason that seems to get overlooked in the ‘business case’ model is that working flexibly might make a staff member happier.
If that staff member is asking for changed working location or timing of their working hours, and they will still be doing what their role requires, what is the problem? You would have no change in what work someone is doing, plus they’d be happier about their work life.
Is that not ‘win win’?