The outsourcing ‘solution’

Image taken from HikingArtist's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Lately there seems to have been a renewed focus on the need for greater representation of women on boards, and into management and beyond. This is great. Many of the ‘solutions’ offered, though, are all about outsourcing. Outsourcing is an issue I think we need to critically reflect on.

Corporate women are claiming that nanny’s are the solution to getting more women into the upper echelons of companies. Australia apparently needs to embrace a ‘nanny culture’ if we’re to increase the representation of women at the top of the corporate world and elsewhere.

I think the call for a ‘nanny culture’ is not the solution to getting more women to the top. It may help, but it only targets mothers who work full-time. It may help some mothers get to the top of workplaces, but with minimal or even no change to the nature or culture of corporate workplaces. Having nannies frees mothers up to work longer hours, and to have the flexibility to not have to be at the childcare centre at 5pm. It lets women who are mothers do what men at the top have traditionally done – work longer hours with more ability to give your all to your workplace due to decreased caring responsibilities.

Eva Cox argues that women without children, and women with stay-at-home partners or surrogate carers (e.g. grandparent or nannies), are currently over-represented among women who make it to the top. She goes on to state that the call for the nanny culture seems to

defeat the feminist idea for change. Replacing the older form of corporate wife support by paid servants to ensure women can also do top jobs is not what we wanted. Feminism wanted to redesign working hours so all could participate meaningfully.

The nanny-culture claim actually helps reinforce workplace cultures of long hours and dedication to work at the expense of family and work/life balance. It reinforces the model of ‘presentism’ and that those who have their ‘bums on seats’ longest at the office are pulling their weight.

Sometimes mothers do not have a choice about how many hours they work. There is rent to pay, or a mortgage to keep up with, that demands a woman work X hours. But some mothers do have a choice. Some mothers enjoy working full time. Whilst other mothers are fortunate that they can afford to be – and are keen to be – stay-at-home mums. There seems to be a mini revival of the 60s Mad Men style of family with stay-at-home mothers. The difference between then and now is that now it is by choice rather than societal compulsion. Some mothers want to balance the two – have a career and be a more involved carer of their children. But our workplace cultures don’t let part-timers climb to the top.

I’ve worked full-time and I’ve worked part-time. For me life is, without a doubt, best when I work less. My husband has worked full-time and part-time. I think life has also been better for him when he is a part-timer. He sees our kids more, and life is not so rushed. Life is not better just because I work less too. I enjoy work more when I’m a part-timer. I have more energy to give to my work, and am more productive the hours that I am there. In many ways, when I’ve worked arrangements like 3 days (21 hours) spread over 4 days I’m probably just about as productive as when I work full-time. I’m nervous about admitting that because it can be perceived that I slack off when I work full-time. But I think employers have to face a certain reality that, particularly in office jobs, in a 35-40 hour week there are a hell of a lot of unproductive employee hours. Most people just don’t have the stamina to give work their all.

Depending on workplace cultures and systems, people have various ways in which they have a certain amount of ‘down time’ at work. There is time spent surfing the net, time spent chatting to others (those ‘water cooler’ moments), time playing whatever games are still on your computer (I once worked in a workplace where one of the admin staff literally played solitaire all day) and time dawdling or just taking work a bit slower. Those workplaces that monitor their employees for productivity (e.g. timed toilet breaks etc) often have a high staff turnover because people find it very difficult to keep working in such an environment.

It may seem like I’m a bit of an Eva Cox fan but I think we’re on the same wave length. Eva has argued the case that we should move to a 30 hour working week as a default . I thoroughly agree. We’ve got to change the culture of how we think about work and productivity. Time spent at a job does not necessarily equate to the amount of work done. Working less can increase productivity, creating happier employees, who have more time to spend with their families, or on other things that give our lives meaning beyond work (not to mention the potential health benefits). We should challenge the culture that excludes from the top of the corporate ladder all but those who can give the most hours.

Tom Hodgkinson’s books How to be Free and How to be Idle (which I referred to in an earlier post) also take up the argument about working less,  and how the trilogy of consuming less (and having less debt) enabling people to work less allowing people more time to be creative might be a remedy for some of our issues with modern life.

Sadly, our culture seems to be going in the opposite direction. Far from embracing less work, we’re embracing more and our lives are getting busier and busier. There are those who seek the tree change or sea change to escape this. But for those who stay in the ‘rat race’ how do we handle this? How do we keep a degree of work/life balance?

It seems more and more that those that can afford it are outsourcing many and various aspects of their lives. They are consumers of lifestyle services. From cleaning and lawn mowing, to dog grooming and walking – we’re encouraged to ‘outsource our lives’. We live in a culture where it is acceptable that we don’t have time to live our lives.

The basic argument goes that we’ve got better things to do with our limited spare time than chores. So any chore that you can outsource to someone else at a cost that is lower than your hourly wage should be outsourced. Outsourcing is marketed as the time-poor person’s solution to work/life balance challenges. We’re also encouraged to do it to put more money back into the economy.

I have a level of discomfort with the perceived ‘simplicity’ of this solution and the fact that an increasing number of people seem to hop on the band wagon without questioning this strategy.

So what are the issues?

Some people have argued that if the trend to the outsourcing of cleaning and cooking (e.g. getting take-away or eating out) continues we’ll be raising a generation that does not know how to cook or clean. Given the popularity of shows like Master Chef, though, I don’t think that cooking skills are going to go through a sharp decline any time soon.

Others have argued that the trend advocated by Tim Ferris (he who wrote The 4 Hour Work Week), of outsourcing personal tasks to India, China and Bangladesh, is worrying because it amounts to exploitation of workers who are paid $2 per hour for services we might pay $50 per hour for locally.

Even the call for a nanny culture has implications for exploitation of workers. In their book Reclaiming the F Word Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune refer to the ‘global care chains’ that are beginning to exist. The chain has an older daughter from a poor family who cares for her siblings, so that her mother can work as a nanny for the children of a family whose mother has in turn migrated to another country to care for the children of a rich family there. Across the chain there is a large number of children without their mothers. Although the employment pays for the children’s schooling, the impact on children (and the mothers who can’t live with their kids) is considerable.

 So before we madly advocate outsourcing our lives to solve our work/life balance, let’s take a moment to look at the bigger picture and question accepted practices.

Is outsourcing a real solution?

Perhaps if we’re to really know if it is the solution we have to really understand what the problem is. And to do that we have to ask the right questions.

Do we want to change workplace cultures to make them family and life friendly or do we want to keep them as they are – cultures that only let a limited range of people to the top?

Do we want to outsource our lives – paying to get ‘spare time’ – when what many of us do in our spare time is to spend money so we have to work more to maintain our lifestyle?

What other questions could we be asking?

I’m not 100% against outsourcing, but I’m certainly for better workplace cultures, and better work/life balance, and reflecting on the directions we appear to be unconsciously steering our society.

What are your thoughts on outsourcing, workplace culture and work/life balance?

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/hikingartist/3000044595/ with thanks to HikingArtist.

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About greenleftyidealist

Green, left and idealistic. A mum, a runner, a rogainer, a public servant and wanna be writer. My dog is golden.
This entry was posted in equity, society, women, work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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