Survival of the flexist

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Survival of the flexist

The evolution of work and why workplaces need to adapt

by Sharon Jank and Alexander W. Watts on Monday, October 31, 2011 - 2:46pm

Housed in the midst of Silicon Valley, Stanford students will have a lot of job options upon graduation. However, one thing graduates might not be thinking about as they look for job openings and prepare for job interviews is that the old way of doing work probably won't resonate with their goals and values, as Millenials.

SGSI classMajor shifts in economic and demographic trends in the past few decades have complicated today’s employment equation. Today’s workforce is increasingly composed of women, dual-earner couples and seniors. However, many of today’s work structures originated in the industrial era when single-earner households were the norm. The traditional ways of working that grew out of the assumption that dad was at the office while mom was at home remain deeply entrenched norms to this day – one-size-fits-all formulas with strict scheduling, linear career paths, centralized workspace, intense availability, face time, and in-person management.

These formulas do not match the changing nature of work itself, nor do they match what today’s workers actually want and need. The increase in working long hours among professional occupations amidst a decline in the value of real wages, the transition to an information-based economy, and increasing demands for work-life balance from those with caregiving responsibilities and the Millennial generation have all fundamentally challenged these traditional norms. Thus, there is a mismatch between the needs of the actual people in today’s workforce and the structure of workplaces.

On the employer side of the equation, workplaces in this new landscape seek to harness the brightest talent and provide attractive opportunities for all workers. Old formulas for hiring, retention and management need a facelift for the 21st century workforce.

Mae O'Malley

Graduate students from across the campus engaged in discussing these issues and joined together for a week-long course, Redesigning Workplaces for 21st Century Women and Men, an offering of Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI), a program sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost of Graduate Education. Co-taught by sociology professor Shelley Correll and organizational behavior professor Sarah Soule, the course included lectures, guest speakers and in-depth business case studies, and culminated in networking luncheon with over 20 representatives from industry and government. Hosted by the Clayman Institute and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the class brought students from all corners of the university, including engineering, chemistry and sociology.

In the course, students learned that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are taking a lead role in redesigning work and innovating solutions that solve workplace flexibility issues while tapping into a broad pool of highly-skilled talent. The students heard from two of these entrepreneurs who discussed their experience providing new work arrangements that benefit both workplaces and employers. These on-demand arrangements solve employer gaps in the workflow and at the same time, solve structural issues for top-class talent.

Take Mae O'Malley, an intellectual property and technology lawyer. In designing a way to solve her own work-life balance needs, O’Malley became a pioneer in redesigning the framework of legal counseling.  She founded Paragon Legal, now a multimillion dollar legal firm. Her niche? Paragon matches highly experienced senior attorneys to companies in need of legal help on projects, often on a part-time basis. Employers that do not want to maintain permanent headcount to manage the ebb and flow of legal work no longer have to sacrifice quality when hiring contract attorneys from the outside. While O’Malley did not start off trying to change the legal industry, she has demonstrated that new work structures can benefit both employers and employees. Despite rejecting the culture of insane work hours in the legal profession, Paragon Legal has experienced phenomenal success.

Sally Thornton

Or take business leader Sally Thornton, who has worked for decades in helping companies find solutions to winning the talent war.  When companies need a specialist to build a social media strategy or execute an SEO plan, they seek options beyond hiring an agency. Thorton’s solution?  She founded Forshay, a company that matches highly trained and talented consultants to clients on an on-demand basis. To cultivate top talent, Thornton is always concerned with creating an environment that allows her employees to do their best and most creative work. “Talent is Forshay’s currency,” said Thornton, “So naturally an open mind about what talent is, how to find it and develop it is what allows this company to grow.”  Forshay’s talent provides high-level work while working schedules that match their lifestyle.

Arrangements that embrace a flexible notion of work are not altogether new. Andrea Davies, a historian and current director of research at the Clayman Institute, provided a guest-lecture on a historical experiment with redesigning workplace structures. Davies explained that as early as the 1920s food manufacturer Kellogg offered working conditions that would be considered progressive in today’s market. In order to address a downturn in the economy, Kellogg opted to run its production factories on a six-hour work day, instead of instituting layoffs. The firm continued to offer vacation with pay, health insurance and retirement funds, among other benefits. “The six-hour workday was considered a success by both the employees and the company,” Davies explained, “the employees valued the two additional hours, and the company experienced gains in production due to fewer injuries and sick employees.”

Whether old or new, what Paragon Legal, Forshay, and Kellogg's experiment with the six-hour workday have in common is that they have thought differently about productivity, time, and what it means to manage work and employees.  Combining these anecdotal examples with high-quality data reveals that what's good for workers can be good for business.

Working in teams, students developed executive summaries about businesses already practicing innovative workplace redesigns and presented their findings to the group. One summary presented the positive environmental dividends that flexible work offers, such as fewer commuters and lowered energy consumption, as well as real-estate savings from limited or multi-use office spaces. Another group pointed out the cost-benefits to a consulting firm in preventing burn-out in overworked employees. Using an experimental design, the firm found that flexibility is not limited to part-time work. New work structures such as predictable schedules and customized – not linear - career options, increased the employee's work satisfaction and the likelihood they would stay at the firm.

Correll and Soule hailed the course a success and attributed the positive outcomes to the students. “The diverse backgrounds and interests of the students brought invaluable perspectives to the course,” said Correll.  “I was impressed with the creativity and dedication of the students.”

“Teaching the SGSI course was an exciting opportunity to work with PhD students from different disciplines,” commented Soule. “We had especially fruitful conversations about flexible work because the problems related to this topic really require interdisciplinary solutions. The students in the course were a huge asset and helped to make it a real success.”

The SGSI course concluded with a well-attended symposium where students, corporate leaders, local government officials, and leading academic experts gathered to brainstorm best practices and discuss future directions for workplace redesign. After the event, Molly Anderson, Director of Talent for Deloitte Services LP, commented that “the symposium was very well-received by corporate leaders who attended. The research shared at the event offered insight into the kinds of changes that will be most effective.” She added, “It also provided a quantitative fact base to build a case for change. The candid and open dialog also enabled companies to share lessons learned and insights from a real world setting.”

“Importantly, the discussion doesn’t end here,” Correll remarked, “The course served as a springboard for a Clayman-sponsored working group this year that will bring together academics and industry leaders from around the country to inspire new academic research on how workplaces can be redesigned to promote more flexibility in terms of how work is done and how workers are evaluated.”  The Clayman Institute also plans to follow the working group with a conference during the 2012-13 academic year.


Shelley Correll is a professor of sociology at Stanford University and the Barbara D. Finberg Director, Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a Professor of Sociology (by courtesy), and a Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow, 2010-2011.

Andrea Rees Davies, PhD, is Director of Research at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and author of Surviving San Francisco.

Sharon Jank is a National Science Foundation Fellow, PhD. student in the Department of Sociology at Stanford and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.

Alexander W. Watts is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stanford.