Work-Life Solutions and Important Differences: Let’s get inclusive

by cv harquail on August 17, 2010

Work-life issues are important to everyone, but not everyone has the same kinds of work-life challenges.

Even though we know we are not all the same in our work life challenges , it’s been hard to include more than a generalized “everyone” in the conversation. Because work-life advocates often find ourselves struggling with pretty basic issues of awareness, we’ve been keeping our arguments pretty simple.


And, with the basics of the argument still ‘dumbed down’ to the lowest common denominators, we talk generically about what ‘everyone’ seems to need. We are pushing so hard to get the basic concepts of work-life strategy understood that we have glossed over important differences in the types of jobs people have and in the variety of social groups people belong to.

It’s time for the work-life conversation to be more explicit about differences among groups of employees. Along with getting more explicit about differences, we can also get more explicit about solutions that address the needs of more than the generic majority. It’s time for the Work-Life conversation to get explicitly inclusive.

But what kinds of important differences do we need to include?

Work-Life and Different Types of Jobs

The differences that we are more aware we are glossing over are related to types of jobs. Knowledge work, managerial work, and location independent work are easier to flex than manual work, front-line customer work, and work that is anchored to a specific place. We are beginning to realize that for some types of jobs, work-life solutions might not be centered on scheduling flexibility.

For example, work-life solutions might include improved public transportation so that workers anchored to a location can get to and fro efficiently. It certainly would reduce work life stress if commuting time was a reliable & affordable 20 minutes on a train, and not 35-75 minutes in a car or a bus trip with 2 transfers).

At least with regard to differences in the structure and demands of different kinds of jobs, we are getting a better sense of the differences we’ve been glossing over and the specifics we have to deal with more directly in the future.

Work-Life and Different Social Groups of Employees

We are somewhat more aware of gender differences among employees. We understand that women who bear children need flexibility around pregnancy, maternity leave and breast-feeding, and that organizations need to plan ahead for these needs and take these needs for granted rather than continuing to think of them as a ‘special case’.

Parenting Status
We are coming to understand that men who are parents, and women & men who are adoptive parents, also need flexibility to manage the demands of a new child and full or part-time paid work. We are also coming to understand that anyone (not just a parent) may have legitimate needs for flexibility to care for other family members, such as elderly parents, siblings, partners, nieces & nephews, and even close friends.

In many very important ways, the conversation about work-life challenges is extending past women-as-parents, and past parenting in general, to incorporate challenges that employees without children might have, such as participation in important activities outside of work. Making sure that work-life is seen as more than a parenting issue, and more than a women’s issue, has been a recent priority.

Cultural, Social and Racial Group Differences
We are much less aware of the cultural, social and racial group differences among employees that are relevant to work-life challenges. These differences are still being glossed over, and occasionally ignored altogether.

When colleagues remind us that we need to remember that people from different ethnic groups and social cultures have demands, norms and expectations that don’t fit with the ‘general’ or dominant culture, we nod our heads and say “Yes, of course.”

But often we don’t know enough about the specific texture of these cultural, social and racial group differences to realize the kinds of challenges we should be talking about next.

I’m a good example: I “know” there are ethnic, social and racial differences in work-life challenges that need to be considered, but up until recently I couldn’t have discussed these differences in detail or offer specific work-life solutions that addressed these specifics.

I have been on the hunt for more information about how specific ethnic, social, and racial groups are challenged by work-life tensions, and about how these differences can be incorporated into our work-life thinking in inclusive ways.

As we push forward with the work-life change conversation, we need to stay ahead of the conversation by pushing ourselves to learn more. We need to be deliberate about which specific issues we discuss next and whose particular solutions we promote to businesses.

As a way to contribute to this conversation, I’ll be summarizing some interesting research about Flexible Work Arrangements and Diverse Women in my next post.

If you have any specific cultural, social, and racial group-based work-life challenges to raise, and/or solutions to share, I’d love to hear from you.

Image: fish in water from McBeth on Flickr


cali williams yost August 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Hi CV,

Great post and equally compelling questions. Couple of follow ups:

1) you are right–different job types require difference types of flexibility within the same company even within the same work groups. That’s why one-size-fits-all flexible work arrangements policies haven’t worked in terms of becoming part of an organization’s day-to-day operating model. A well-developed, well-executed flexibility strategy allows for these differences.

2) Here is a great study that talks about some of the socio-economic differences Three Faces of Work-Familiy Conflict.

3) While I’m know there are studies that look at the differences socially, culturally and racially my practitioner experience within companies has been interesting when trying to capture and address these nuances. A few years ago I had one client that asked us to study work-life perceptions and challenges by gender, race, level (eg economic), buit when we got the data and presented the findings the task force freaked out. There were differences (nothing incredibly extreme) and even though we took great pains to present the findings in a clear, unbiased manner, the group made us take the findings out of the report and not consider them in our recommendations because they were afraid of how they would be interpreted. I have to say, I understood their concern but it explains, perhaps, why there isn’t more discussion on this level of difference and need.

Thanks for moving this part of the conversation forward!

Anita August 18, 2010 at 3:04 am

Fantastic post, CV. I appreciate the concept of being explicitly inclusive and the need to meticulously parse out the needs of various groups/types of workers. As Cali points out, many in the corporate world may want to avoid those realities, but the sooner we lay them out honestly, the better chance we have to develop and implement solutions.

jeux motorola August 21, 2010 at 10:33 am

As Cali points out, many in the corporate world may want to avoid those realities, but the sooner we lay them out honestly, the better chance we have to develop and implement solutions.

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