Career & Success

It’s Time to Prioritize Humane Workplaces — Even If It Means Less Productivity

Two years into the pandemic, it’s time to rethink what jobs mean, says economic sociologist Adina Sterling. “People are really tired.“

March 03, 2022

| by Melissa De Witte
A Black woman sitting in a conference room with other woman, using her hands to gesture and looking happy. | Credit: iStock/julief514.

“We need to redesign companies to center problem-solving, equity, collaboration, and creativity so that people can live balanced work lives.” | iStock/julief514

The pandemic revealed that for too long, too many women have lived their lives on a tightrope, balancing multiple, conflicting demands, says Stanford scholar Adina Sterling.

And it’s come at a price: Recent data has shown that women have shouldered the burden of pandemic-related job losses. To retain and bring women back into the workforce, companies need to consider employees as whole human beings, with lives and loved ones outside of work, Sterling says.

Sterling, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is an economic sociologist and organizational theorist who specializes in studying the way firms and labor and product markets interact and the implications of these interactions on organizational behaviors and career outcomes. She leads the Equity by Design Lab at Stanford GSB.

Here, she discusses how values and priorities related to work need to shift: Instead of making productivity the end game “at all costs,” organizations and companies must create working environments that inspire problem-solving, equity, collaboration and creativity so that all employees can live well-balanced lives.

When it comes to pandemic-related job losses, the National Women’s Law Center found a dramatic difference between the numbers of men and women returning to the labor market, with women trailing behind men by about 1.1 million jobs. What can be done to bring women back into the labor market?

As a society, we need to use the pandemic as a way to pause and reconfigure our priorities. This means companies need to treat women and men and gender nonbinary people as whole human beings, with lives and loved ones outside of work. What the pandemic has surfaced is what was there all along: Too many people are living and have been living on a tightrope, trying to balance multiple and competing demands.

We should stop pushing productivity in the workplace at all costs, and begin to push humane, thriving environments. We need to stop allowing shareholders to have the loudest voices. These voices have led to high levels of efficiency increases in the U.S. workforce over the last four decades to the tune of almost 70%, and yet almost none of that has gone to the bottom 80% of the income distribution. This is not a new statistic.

We need to redesign companies to center problem-solving, equity, collaboration, and creativity so that people can live balanced work lives. We need to move away from an efficiency and the bottom-line model, give workers more power, and design better jobs. People are really tired, whether they are retail workers that have to do shift work for 50 to 60 hours a week or executives that are dealing with the 24/7 workweek. If we saw the problem as similar across these groups that are rarely in the same room together, we would make progress.

But we can’t expect companies to shift from centering productivity to prioritizing creativity, problem-solving and equity within the employment relationship on their own. Broad collaborations across multiple stakeholders, including governments, corporations and academic institutions, are needed.

Faculty portrait of Adina Stirling. | Nancy Rothstein.

Associate professor of organizational behavior Adina Sterling | Nancy Rothstein

I want to talk also about the role of social networks and careers — one of your areas of study. With the pandemic disrupting the workplace and co-workers no longer networking with colleagues like they used to, how are networks changing? What risks do these changes pose for women in particular?

The thing to remember about networks and careers is that networks cut both ways with respect to inequality. Some studies show the pandemic has likely truncated networks or led us all to have smaller networks because we have fewer opportunities to connect, including serendipitously, like we have been able to in the past. I would also expect it has led to greater entrenchment or the deepening of our relationships with our close contacts, and we are therefore getting less “new” information or ideas that we might get from weaker connections that we now see less often than previously. This can all be bad from a social network standpoint.

On the flip side, though, it means that perhaps companies have had to figure out other means for doing a lot of what they do — i.e., they have had to have more formal processes in lieu of informal, network-based ones.

We need to move away from an efficiency and the bottom-line model, give workers more power, and design better jobs.
Adina Sterling

Take hiring for instance. Over the 2020-2021 recruitment cycle, it was impossible for companies to send their employees to travel to college campuses to recruit early-stage workers. As a result, it’s possible that instead of social networks — e.g., alumni networks — surfacing as a main way companies staffed positions, they had to go through formal means, like advertising their job openings to evaluate candidates even though they might not have come through social networks. Generally speaking, this can be a good thing – whenever companies move beyond using old-style networks to recruit, it tends to open up doors, including for women.

So, as long as we can get what I call substitution effects — the replacement of networks for more formal, transparent and open processes to hire and promote workers, for instance, we are likely making some progress. I am finding some early evidence that this is what occurred in my research on the pandemic’s effects on hiring over the last year.

You have also examined the social inequality of networks. Is there anything in what you’ve just described that might exacerbate existing inequalities or biases towards women in the workplace?

It is likely that after the last few years, because we have all had our networks shrink somewhat, they have become more homophilous than what they were previously. Homophily is the idea that “birds of a feather stick together,” so to speak, or that people are more likely to interact when they are of similar backgrounds.

As we come out of the pandemic, we all should take a look at ways to diversify our networks. Institutions are a big part of that. They play a role in bringing people together, around projects, initiatives and goals. When people have shared responsibilities and are working across differences, it turns out that this is a really good way to help networks grow. It allows people to have “roles,” which is a great way to get people to interact and develop their networks.

This article was originally published by Stanford News on March 1, 2022.

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