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Rethinking Work

The industrial age is over, so why are we still punching in? 

Lewis Hine Power House MechanicWelcome to the 21st century, where women are an official fixture of the working world. One catch: the laundry never went away. Or the dishes. Or the kids. Sure, men have gotten more involved at home—but with everyone working, finding balance between work and home has become a challenge. Something’s gotta give, and it might mean rethinking the way we work.

Work as we know it just isn’t working,” writes Amy Brown for Solutions Online. “Our labor laws and practices still focus on an antiquated Industrial Model of Work that uses time spent in the office or at the work site as a measure of productivity. We still cling to some kind of 1950s middle-class nostalgic belief that an ideal worker does not have time constraints because someone at home manages child care, elder care, and household responsibilities. This is no longer true.”

First of all, as anyone who works near an internet connection will tell you, time spent at work is not synonymous with time spent working. And the interweb isn’t the only difference between now and the 1950s. Seventy percent of children are currently raised in homes where all adults work, and as baby boomers reach retirement we’re about to see a large increase in the number of elderly who will need home care.

Work schedules that don’t leave time for balancing these care-giving responsibilities leave employees stressed, tired, and vulnerable to illness, says Brown. And recent research suggests companies that don’t support work-life balance are likely to see higher rates of turnover. When you consider that replacing an employee typically costs a company at least half of that employee’s salary, employee dissatisfaction starts to look bad for the bottom line, too.

Work arrangements like telecommuting and flexible scheduling help, says Brown, but there might be a better option: the “Accountability Model of Work.” Here, workers are given a set of responsibilities and complete control of their time, creating incentive to use every minute wisely. The result is high quality work done quickly, and employees are happier too.

It’s normal, says Brown, for companies’ first reaction to be that the accountability model would never work for them. But when Gap Inc. finally made the switch, both management and employees reported increased levels of engagement and higher quality work. The company also measured a 17 percent increase in productivity.

Paired with changes in social policy, suggests Brown, the accountability model could easily take the place of today’s industrial model. “Work is not a place you go, it is something you do,” she writes. And a different take on how it’s done could make both workers and their bosses more satisfied.

Photo: "Power house mechanic working on steam pump," by Lewis Hine, public domain.