Highly Flexible Workplaces augmented by technology

The Abstract below is for a paper I hope to write by the beginning of June. If you have any idea of papers, books or projects that I should consider for this paper then please add a comment below! I need to learn a great deal before June!

(an exploratory abstract for the Interacting with computers special issue on Feminism and HCI https://sites.google.com/site/feminismandhci/home)


Building on Feminism: Exploring the utopian ideal of Highly Flexible Workplaces augmented by technology

by Dr Lisa Tweedie, Tweedie Consulting, Malmesbury, UK

This paper looks at the role technology can play in supporting a good work/life balance. It argues that there are strong philosophies embedded in our new technology which are allied to feminist perspectives. Instead of pitting the “carer” role against “a career” the paper considers the utopian ideal of Highly Flexible Workplaces (HFW) augmented by technology.

The issue of work is central to human well-being. Work helps us value ourselves. Paid or unpaid it defines who we are. Caring is a form of work. It is also an integral part of our human experience. We are all cared for as children and when ill, old or infirm. Most of us will also be carers at some point in our life. The traditional workplace encourages a distinction between one’s professional role and the caring roles that life brings. Many people find these multiple roles difficult to manage. Some choose to focus on one in preference to the other.

The advent of new technology such as mobile and broadband challenges us to think beyond our traditions. We now live in a world where “always on” professional work travels much further into the confines of our homes. Equally the ease with which one can build an entrepreneurial home based business is astonishing. Such change brings tension as we adjust how we manage our lives.

Web 2.0 represents a shift away from central control. We are all empowered to become creators. Transparency, openness and sharing are key concepts. Highly Flexible Workplaces (HFW) build on such ideals, in particular they focus on mutual support, shared learning and community

This paper will start by reviewing work/life balance. The discussion builds on a rich heritage from both the feminist movement and more general ideas around co-operatives and community. It also considers different cultural solutions to work/life balance. To provide a current perspective views from carers (via social media discussions) are shared and analysed.

To foster the development of HFW one needs to improve carers skills and develop appropriate technology. The paper reports on projects that do this. Women have a long history of teaching and sharing domestic and craft skills. Technology and entrepreneurial skills can be transferred in a similar manner. Carers can support and train each other using small groups, social media and online learning opportunities (e.g. our school parents IT club). Other examples are: fostering entrepreneurial skills by setting up social media “business clubs”; setting up on-line time banks where people barter their time (e.g. Stroud); creating shared workspaces (e.g. Bristol, Birmingham); building carer co-operatives where carers share skills and provide mutual support; micro-finance and credit unions.

The underlying thesis of this paper is that by bringing appropriate technology and philosophy to the table we can transform the workplace by extending flexibility beyond current conceptions. Highly Flexible Workplaces would be healthy places, that build community and encourage a culture of life-time learning. In other words places we can all “have it all”.

 Photo by Thomas Hawk – distributed under a creative commons licence

3 responses to “Highly Flexible Workplaces augmented by technology”

  1. ltweedie says :

    A Personal Journey

    This topic represents more than just a paper for me … it summarizes everything I have been thinking about in the ten years that I have been a carer.

    For my first three years as a mother I managed to hold down a fairly high powered job at Oracle as the main earner for our family. It started as four days per week and shifted down to three. I was blessed with on site childcare and very positive UK contractual terms. In my third year of motherhood I was pregnant and then had our second child. We almost lost him at three weeks. This transformed my entire view of what I was doing.

    Coming close to losing a child is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone but in some ways I see it as a positive experience. It changed my life. My child continued to be ill every five weeks for the whole of his first year. I quickly realised there was no way I could maintain my former work regime.

    When I decided to leave I found the reactions of my fellow Oracle employees fascinating – especially the US ones. Many told me I was brave (and in some ways I had no real understanding of exactly what I was giving up it is true). What I found fascinating was the underlying assumption that if I gave up work to go and look after my kids there would be no way back. Over the ensuing years I have fought that assumption with every inch of my being!

    I am not saying it was easy. We have moved location twice since then and I had a third child. I am not a natural housewife and I found it lonely, boring at times and frustrating. As a stay at home mum I have done all the things that we do …toddler groups, playgroup committees, PTA’s & most importantly 3 bookgroups to keep me sane (one in each town where I have lived). To start with I did no other work … then I did a bit of lecturing … and one thing lead to another and now I have a very small but well formed consulting business.

    I think it is a slightly unusual business in that one of the first issues I raise with my clients is the topic of work/life balance and that my family come first. So far this has never presented a problem. And I am proud to say I have turned contracts down based on this issue, to be honest, each time I have done this it gives me a real kick. It feels really good to be in control of ones life! I am also lucky – my husband has had a solid job and steady income which allows me to do this.

    Meanwhile all the time at every opportunity I have talked to other carers (male and female, all ages, all creeds and persuasions) about work. I have met some fantastic role models and also seen people who are enduring extremely difficult work-stress related situations. And I have come to realise that the current workplace often simply does not work for families. It is based on an old model and we need to change it.

    In a sense my solution is a pragmatic one. It doesn’t say throw out the old workplaces – they work fine for single people or families happy to have a single earner and full-time stay at home carer. However the rest of us who want to maintain a balance whilst promoting the value of our caring roles we require new sorts of organizations. In some senses I see this as a way of formalizing our support networks so that in periods of crisis the support network can step in and ease the load. To be honest this is nothing new. This is the way women and other cultures have always worked. However it is not the way workplaces work here in the UK and as such I see it as a radical departure.

    The exciting thing about technology is that it augments workplaces to make them highly flexible. However this flexibility needs to be managed within a work/life balance framework. We need to draw clear lines between work and play; family time and business time. This in itself is a valuable topic for investigation and a whole different story.

    For the last couple of years I have been blogging about carer co-operatives on Mumsnet. Next month myself and two friends hope to start one. It will involve tailoring, jewellry making, educational resources, training and IT (two traditionally female subjects and some more unusual ones). We will have retail space, workshop space and training space. We hope to promote skill sharing and help other carers to start businesses of their own. Watch this space (-:

  2. Kate says :

    Great article, Lisa – I wholeheartedly support your views – may there be more of you out there supporting the work/life balance!

  3. Lisa says :

    Cheers – sadly I never wrote the paper but it is a theme I may have something more to write about soon! Although the venture I mentioned in the comment above never materialised my home business is flourishing and I am starting to train up others. Feels very exciting. Still have lots of dreams about where we might go.

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