Archive | July, 2018

Working models

22 Jul

 

I’d been mulling over work-life balance issues, and the persistent question of gender equality in the tech workforce, when I read Alexis Ohanian’s open letter in The Hill, about the value of parental leave. He has established a system at Reddit, where employees are entitled to 16 weeks parental leave on the birth of a child. Crucially, he has taken his own full leave entitlement in the last year, after he and Serena Williams had their first child.

I’ve written before about the issues raised by the amount of parental leave taken by tech CEOs.  In the cases of Marissa Meyer or Mark Zuckerberg, the practice of modelling a culture where both men and women would be encouraged to take leave in the future, fell short.  In Meyer’s case, this was because she took ultra-short leave herself, and arranged to have her children accommodated alongside her office at work, while simultaneously banning homeworking for employees; in Zuckerberg’s case,  because he took only half of the full leave entitlement available to the wider workforce at Facebook. So hats off to Ohanian, for at least taking up his full leave entitlement, and not consigning it to the ‘for the juniors’ pile.

I’ve also been reading about the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Commons, Julian Smith, who has been in hot water over pairing arrangements, in relation to close votes on Brexit last week.  ‘Pairing’ allows MPs from opposing parties to cancel out each other’s vote, if one of them cannot attend parliament. If one of the pair is absent, the other agrees not to vote, so as to maintain the balance of voting behaviour across the House.  This procedure has now become bound up with the lack of formal parental leave for MPs.  Pairing arrangements are vital during the period following birth, when women are on maternity leave, or when men are taking paternity or parental leave.  Last week, on crucial Brexit votes, Brandon Lewis defied his pairing arrangement with Jo Swinson (the Lib Dem’s deputy leader, who has recently had her second child), by voting all the same.  Julian Smith has claimed that this was an error, while rumours have it, that breaches of pairing may have been encouraged. Breakdown of the pairing system is a problem, not just because of the breach of trust and its implications for high politics, but also because of the way it rides roughshod over the rights of working parents to take leave, and not to be discriminated against for breaks in their working history.  Members of parliament should be setting an example of fairness on this issue, as they legislate for the rights of others.

My thinking about model employers was nudged further by news that a New Zealand firm has experimented with giving its employees a 4-day week on full pay – and has followed up on the results of a trial. Encouragingly, the New Zealanders found that their employees were more satisfied and less stressed during 4-day weeks. Employees had been consulted about how to implement the policy, and had contributed to ideas for increasing efficiency, including automation of some routine tasks.  The trial has been pronounced a huge success, with productivity rising by an estimated 20%. How much of employees’ greater satisfaction can be attributed to their extra day of leisure, and how much to the improvement in quality of their jobs through automation of the repetitive aspects of work, is perhaps worthy of further investigation. Gaby Hinsliff has written about the ‘smart’ use of tech, which can free  people up to do the most fulfilling parts of their job, and to allow more flexibility in when and how it is done.  Technology will have a role in the design of jobs in future, possibly leading to fewer hours of better quality work for greater numbers of people.  But the jury is still out, and there are plenty more dystopian views of how automation may affect the workforce – it’s a subject I might return to another time.

The idea of more equal distribution of work throughout society, brings us back full circle to the example set by men taking parental leave.  Fairness at work can not dodge questions of structural inequalities. Ohanian makes the point that the bar for men is set very low, in terms of expectations around their involvement in care of their children.  Women, meanwhile, face pressure to excel both in parenthood, and at work, in unsupportive systems (in the US, the lack of formal maternity leave for many, means that mothers often return to work only two weeks after childbirth).  Perhaps it helps men to contemplate taking leave when both partners in a couple have equivalent status and salaries, so that it is harder to justify defaulting to the traditional  breadwinner/homemaker models, where men carry on earning the same or more, and women step back from the workforce. Ohanian’s career success is more than matched by that of his wife, Serena Williams.

It remains the case that flexible working arrangements are more likely to be offered to those in higher status jobs, while people in frontline services or on production lines, must show up for all the hours available to them.  Those in service industries and care work – often low-paid, and often female – are unlikely to be able to access 4-day weeks on 5-days’ pay.  But perhaps their employers are missing a trick: since their employees are humans, in jobs requiring communication and empathy, they are amongst the ones most likely to benefit from a New Zealand-style 4 day week which could help prevent burn-out. They are not likely to be replaced by robots anytime soon.  Imagine how much we would all benefit if productivity in service sectors and social care, rose by 20% …. Imagine  if our idea of the model worker deviated more from that of a man in the office, with a wife who does most of the caring work…

 

 

 

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All tomorrow’s parties (with apologies to The Velvet Underground)

5 Jul

 

And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?

 

A hand-me-down deal from who knows where

At all tomorrow’s parties

And where will we go, what will we be

When midnight comes around

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?

 

And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?

 

Which elements of yesterday’s deals

At all tomorrow’s parties?

And what will we do with Theresa’s fudge

When Brexit comes around?

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?

 

And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?

 

For Theresa’s fudge could be Europe’s clown

For whom none will go mourning

A hybrid fix, a hand-me-down deal

Of elements, a customs plan

Fit for one who sits outside

For all tomorrow’s parties

 

 

 

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