Re-framing Work and Family Issues: Implications for Practice and Research: A Dialogue Between Stewart Friedman and Ellen Ernst Kossek, Sloan Research Network Newsletter, Spring 2002, Volume 4(1)

Bio: Professor Stew Friedman is founder of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, home of the Work/Life Roundtable. He just returned to Wharton after completing a two-year stint as director of Ford Motor Company’s Leadership Development Center, where he brought to life his concept of “total leadership -- integrating work, home, community and self to increase business results and enrich lives.” His publications include two recent books: Work and Life: The Wharton Resource Guide (1998, with J. DeGroot and P. Christensen) and Work and Family • Allies or Enemies? (2000, with J. Greenhaus). Ellen Ernst Kossek, Ph.D. Bio: Ellen Ernst Kossek is a Professor at Michigan State University and a member of the Wharton Roundtable. She was elected a Fellow to the American Psychological Association based on “her outstanding contributions to work/life research, particularly in understanding how work-family polices affect employees, and specifically on the relationship between organizational policies and care giving decisions.” She participated on the Sloan work-life teaching think tank and is currently co-writing a book on work-life issues for Harvard Business School Press and several articles on workplace flexibility and the social impact of work-family policy implementation in organizations. A Dialogue Between Stewart Friedman and Ellen Ernst Kossek Kossek: Stew, we have known each other for over a decade. What first made you interested in field of work and family? Friedman: We all come at this topic for different reasons. For me, I was hit with a thunderbolt when I became a parent; it changed my career. It forced me to think in a new way about what I was going to do to make the world a better place for my children. There is a Hebrew phrase, tikkun olam, which means “to heal the world.” The idea is that the world is a broken place and our task is to heal it. I became aware of the importance of this idea as a vision towards which I might aspire in my work when I looked into the eyes of my first child the moment he was born. I was passionately committed; always an asset when trying to get something done! Prior to this epiphany, I had been reading and writing about work/family and adult socialization while getting my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. In particular, Dan Katz and Bob Kahn’s work on role theory and Joe Veroff’s course on socialization were major influences on my thinking. That’s my story, Ellen. How did you get into this field? Kossek: I had a similar experience in that becoming a parent also made work and family issues more salient to my
research and my life. I had my first child while a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. I was told that the university policies did not permit maternity leave for doctoral candidates, and if I wanted to take time off from my studies I would have to reapply for my fellowship without any guarantees. Though I was back at Yale three days after giving birth, this experience certainly made me very interested in studying work-family policy. What made you start the Wharton Work/Life Roundtable? Friedman: When I was back in the classroom I began speaking to students about my role and theirs in helping to better shape work environments and careers to nurture the next generation; in other words, to enable working parents to do all the things they need to do for their careers and their families. Some students were very interested and receptive, and others thought this topic didn’t belong in the MBA curriculum. I began to experiment with how to bring work/life issues into the classroom, then found colleagues like you and convened them from business schools along with counterparts from leading companies to form a think tank on how we should be bringing this topic into business education. Jessica DeGroot, a Wharton MBA student at the time, was instrumental in shaping that agenda. We were fortunate to have the NY Times cover our first meeting, and the response was strong, in both positive and negative terms. We heard from many people, from Newt Gingrich to executives in Japan. Some thought it folly while others applauded, encouraging us to continue, which we did. Out of this grew the Wharton Resource Guide (Jossey-Bass/ Pfeiffer), a Harvard Business Review article, and a series of teaching cases (now posted on the Sloan Network Library of Papers, Presentations, & Reports). Kossek: What did you learn about work/life during your two years as a senior executive in a major corporation? Friedman: One thing that became very clear is how change in the culture of work/life is more likely to occur when it is seen as serving directly the collective interests • both near- and long term • of the firm, and not just the non-work interests of parents or any other single employee group. Successful strategies for creating more flexible and responsive work environments aren’t rooted in worker protection ideologies. Key stakeholders and senior management in particular, have to believe that the work/life voice really is speaking for shareholders as well as for moms and dads who want more time with their kids. Perhaps this seems ironic, or paradoxical, given what I just told you about how I got into this field. Kossek: What do you mean by paradoxical? Friedman: The apparent paradox is that you will get greater worker protections and increased flexibility in work arrangements, the more work/life change initiatives are framed first and foremost as enhancing business results, such as increased quality, reduced cost, higher productivity, and faster innovation. We showed this to be the case at Ford Motor. Total leadership puts the “work” in “work/life” front and center. Flexibility increases business results. Leadership, performance and the firm’s collective purpose; these become the driving issues, not how to give parents more time off to take care of their children. I could be wrong, but in my view, most of the work/life field has the reverse priority, and, I believe, that’s why it is currently a relatively low-level HR issue in most companies, and not a strategic business concern, despite whatever rhetoric we hear to the contrary. Kossek: I agree with you on the argument that it needs to be framed as a strategic issue more than time off for parents, but I think some work/life professionals will not like what you are saying. Friedman: The point is that “work/life” is read as entitlement and zero-sum by most business leaders. This is the wrong language for affecting real change from within the corporate system. Total leadership casts the dual interests of increased business results and enriched lives as mutually reinforcing, with an emphasis on the skills that leaders at all levels require. I have found in my adventures as head of global leadership development for a large company that there’s much greater receptivity when you start the dialogue with increased business results and enriched lives as the goals. This approach is intended to break us out of the typical “work/family balance” mindset, in which “balance” is the operative term, reinforcing the traditional zero sum view. Kossek: Yes, “balance” is a funny word. Roles may never be truly in balance. Sometimes one gives more to the family, and sometimes more to work. One needs balance over a life cycle. Friedman: I believe the normative pressures implied by “balance” are inhibiting, even crippling. We don’t want people to think that they have to be role models for what is typically seen as balance • in the sense of equal engagement in both work and personal life • do we? I believe the work/life movement stands for choice, which is why I prefer “alignment” (of actions and values, no matter what they are) and “integration” as the means for achieving it. Kossek: What did you learn about universities compared to business corporations? What would you like to communicate to universities, now that you’re back in one?
Friedman: Unlike private sector organizations, universities don’t seem to have the same capacity to switch rapidly back and forth between part-time and full-time workers, nor do they have the same degree of flexibility in general. Universities are more rigid than businesses because they are buffered from market pressures to a greater degree, and so the more traditional labor market models seem to hold on longer in academia. Kossek: Don’t you think tenure adds to the rigidity of the labor market? Friedman: Tenure is another factor that seems to slow down universities’ responsiveness to change in labor market dynamics. Universities don’t feel compelled to respond to the war for talent in the same way companies do. Yet more and more people who would have traditionally been academics are creating different kinds of careers for themselves, more than a few forming hybrid careers that cross academia and business. These new career models are likely to drive universities to become more flexible and responsive to market pressures. Kossek: I agree with this larger framing, not only for practice but also for research. The work/life field needs to rethink the language and the research questions asked. The research needs to be broader and more interdisciplinary. We need to ask different questions. We need to publish in more management journals, more mainstream HR and OB journals. It is still viewed as a fringe issue by many mainstream researchers. This summer, I will talk to new Ph.D.s for the Academy’s HR Division on how to manage work and family issues. While this is a good step, it would also have been good to have a research focus as well for these students, to attract them to the topics of our field. Friedman: I agree, Ellen. I’d encourage you to consider stretching the boundaries of your talk a bit, and make this point when you’re talking to the next generation of people coming into academia. Help them to see that, as the growing body of evidence shows, work/life is not only a social movement intended to benefit the next generation of children in our society, it’s a field with powerful ideas for cultural transformation that compel businesses to make more intelligent and humane use of people and technology.