Moving Work-Family Research to the Mainstream

IESE’s ICWF conference gathers leading academics

05/07/2013

Despite their potential benefits, many work-family balance policies continue to be "lumpy," or unevenly implemented across large organizations, said Prof. Ellen Ernst Kossek, the Basil S. Turner Professor of Management at Purdue University.

In her presentation during IESE’s 5th annual International Conference of Work & Family, held July 1-3, Kossek challenged researchers to help improve life for employees in organizations and move away from focusing mainly on problems linked to work-life balance.

The ICWF conference was opened by professorsNuria Chinchilla, director of IESE's International Center for Work and Family (ICWF) and Mireia las Heras, academic director of the conference.

Kossek said that work-life issues are still on the fringe of management research, although progress has been made in recent years. "They’re not mainstream, but we’re getting there."
She provided advice for academics, encouraging them to take a multilevel system approach in order to involve both top and bottom levels of the organization when carrying out research projects and working with multidisciplinary teams.

The Yahoo debate

There is an inherent conflict in being a researcher and an advocate for new policies to improve life-work balance, so it is vital for academics to constantly examine "what we really know," said Prof. Tammy Allen, professor of psychology at the University of South Florida.

Allen focused her presentation on telecommuting, which has been on the rise over the past decade. The case of Marissa Mayer – Yahoo’s CEO who controversially did away with work-from-home policies – has sparked a new discussion about the pros and cons of telecommuting, she noted.

Allen’s research shows that while telecommuting can lead to a decrease in family-work conflict and greater worker autonomy and satisfaction, it also has drawbacks such as feelings of isolation and longer working hours.

Prominent companies such as Apple and Google, which provide the technologies that make telecommuting possible, still maintain strong campus-focused cultures which are designed to keep workers onsite, she pointed out.

Researchers need to continue analyzing what triggers conflict and balance and also be more precise about how the term "flexibility" is used when conducting future studies, she said.

Focus on the positive

Prof. Stephen Sweet, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Ithaca College, said that he preferred using the term work-life "harmonization" over "balance" in research, since the latter term implies that the two areas are in competition with each other.

"What we say and how we say it is incredibly important," he said.

Sweet said that there is a dearth of research on the benefits of work-life policies. "Looking at the literature, we tend to find that there’s an emphasis on the negative, rather than the positive," he said. "I think there’s a lot to be said for the positive."

During the event’s closing session, Prof. Chinchilla highlighted the four "Fs" that make up a good leader: flexibility, for creating sustainable organizations; family, to maintain a key pillar in society; femininity, to bring new values to the table; and friendship, to foster productivity in a collegial environment.

Prof. Las Heras presented the ICWF PhD/ Junior Scholar Best Paper Award to Bhavani Arabandi of Ithaca College.

During the conference, academics from around the world gathered to analyze topics such as corporate family responsibility; the benefits of flexible work arrangements and developing evidence-based work-life research assessments and organizational interventions. Research tracks at this year's edition of the conference included work-family and the age of austerity; work-family policies and culture; dual-income couples; and work life and women's careers.