In her new book, Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter calls for a major mindset shift by business leaders and managers. Today, she points out, women are primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households; by 2020 more than one in three Americans will be caring for an elder person; and Millennial men particularly yearn for more connection with and opportunity to care for family members. She implores business decision-makers to recognize that caring for children, elders, and others in need is part of a life portfolio for almost all workers, whether they show it or not. Legislators may enact policies, and individual workers may find coping strategies to integrate work and caring commitments, but the workplace is the nexus of this challenge and the place to create practical solutions.
The shift in perspective she advocates is to view caregiving not as a women’s problem but rather as life experience that makes people more knowledgeable, adaptable, honest, courageous, trustworthy, hopeful, patient, and loyal. If some employees at some times during their work lives need more flexibility in where and when they work—or need part-time hours or temporary off ramps—give it to them! Caregiving loads rise and fall over the life course: a good employee is well worth the investment.
A way to understand this mindset is to think about a rice cooker. Yes, you read that correctly. Managers want superior results, but to get them, Slaughter writes,
It’s a strange analogy, but I always think of my rice cooker. Traditional rice cookers operate on clear input and output principles—one cup rice, two cups water, thirty-five minutes’ cooking. But mine determines the cooking time based on the quality of the rice, the weather and any other factor that might affect the outcome.
It sounds odd, and requires additional calculation on the part of the machine, so the cooking time always varies. But the result is so much better. So too is the work that is done when we determine assignments and time based on the quality of the work we need done and the individual characteristics of the people who are going to do that work.
If an employee can accomplish work with a modified or non-standard schedule, if he eschews face time because a disabled child at home loves and needs to eat dinner with him, if a woman engineer takes a year maternity leave and wants to return—what is a manager to do? Employ the new, adaptable rice cooker! Adopt a flexible attitude and practices and absorb the diversity of nutrients inside—even if they look different from the plain, white rice grains of yesteryear.
Slaughter suggests that focusing on results is a way to encourage this new managerial mindset. She mentions ROWE (for results-only work environment), the management philosophy developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson in 2003 to reduce workplace stress and work-life conflict, and to spur creativity and innovation at Best Buy, while also maximizing productivity and growth. Like its older, foundational management concept of the high commitment workplace (a bigger umbrella concept I describe in The Custom-Fit Workplace), a results-only mindset directs managerial attention to end products (was it high quality and delivered on time? Did the employee hit promised targets?) and away from traditional productivity indicators (number of hours worked, presence in the cubicle). Control and accountability rest with the employee, but managers make sure the “rice gets cooked” with clear objectives, expectations, feedback and measurable results.
A high commitment, results-based management mindset depends on trust and good faith and motivation—things that employees who are caregivers possess in spades. That’s why it is a good fit for the demographic realities descending on American business leaders. As Bain & Company reported in 2014, 45 percent of people under the age of 30—more than any other age group—envision a career that allows for periodic caregiving breaks and other work-life flexibility.
How best to change managers’ mindset and thus their decision-making in the workplace? Unfinished Business surely will help unfreeze the thinking of some. In addition, a group of university researchers recently identified a key method while conducting a large-scale, randomized experiment in a Fortune 500 company. One group of managers adopted a results mindset, offering employees greater control over when and where they worked. Work-family stress and other negative health outcomes like sleep deprivation and smoking fell for the people working under this more openmanagement approach. Training the supervisors emerged as critical and essential to reinforcing their new behavior and thus to supporting the organization’s shift toward a flexible, results-driven way of working, so that managers could pay more than lip service to the idea of change. A key to solidifying the new mindset: “wins” to sustain manager commitment, such as more engaged workers, lower turnover, higher productivity, and quality end-products.
Managers and leaders are pivotal to any type of shift toward caregiver-friendly business organizations. With encouragement to break free of their die-hard traditional routines and biases, they may realize they can bring home the rice and cook it.