INTOUCH : Work: family – the challenge of integration

One of the biggest challenges facing managers of today and into the future is designing workplaces that meet people’s dual responsibilities to work and to family. That’s according to Tom Kochan, professor of management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School and co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research.
“We have to think now about work and family as an integrated activity – we can’t divorce them. Therefore we have to design work so that it is both productive and also allows the flexibility for parents to be both good parents and good workers. I think that is major challenge of our day and in our field.”
In New Zealand as guest speaker at the launch of AUT’s new Bachelor of Business Degree (combined human resource and employment relations majors), Kochan believes we have lost the “social contract” that was so optimistically forged between employers and employees after the Second World War. In the past 25 years, he says, this contract has been increasingly rolled back and growing income disparity is now reaching crisis point in the world’s economies.
“This can’t be solved without being innovative in how we work together to achieve the levels of productivity and customer service that are essential to business success. But then we also have to rebuild vibrant form of labour advocacy.”
It’s not case of recreating labour unions as they were but developing forms of labour advocacy that are more attuned to today’s workplaces, says Kochan.
“We have learned from labour manager partnerships, that conflict doesn’t go away – it just gets managed better and channelled in more constructive fashion, focused around at least common shared vision and agenda for the organisation. The organisation has to be successful. You have to be committed to being high productive enterprise – but then you also have to ensure that all those who contributed get fair treatment and fair share of the fruits of their labour.”
This process starts at individual workplace level.
“You have to understand what does it take in our organisation to be successful then design work practices and relations around that. But I think there’s also lot to be said to working collaboratively across firms in the same industry because they are interdependent.”
An example – Southwest Airlines in the United States has stake in helping other airlines to become as effective as it is (through good workplace relations) because it only takes one weak link in the complex interdependency of airline traffic control, baggage handling etc to foul airport operations for others and give the industry in general bad name. Likewise, Nike’s moves (under public pressure) to reform work practices in offshore factories spills over into the operations of competitors using the same facilities.
Kochan notes that government policy has to support the need for basic labour standards and create an environment that supports innovative workplaces. And he thinks New Zealand is on the right track with its transformation and innovation agendas.
He also believes the momentum for change is growing in his own country.
“I’m fundamentally optimistic. I think we have momentum – our kids are not going to put up with the mess we’re leaving. I’ve written about restoring the American dream – ie, if you work hard, get good education, play by the rules, then you should be able to improve on your standard of living. But that’s not happening now and I think our children are going to say enough is enough.
“We’re not going to be bound to solutions of the past we’re going to think more creatively. So while I don’t see us changing overnight, I do see the United States waking up to both its national and international problems and doing something about this legacy of mess. I think there’s now momentum for change.”

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