Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Are Flexible Work Policies Bad For Business? A Reading List for Managers

The new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, has been making the news in the last few months for her strong work ethic.  Her decision to take a two-week maternity leave after being at the company for only a few months (and perhaps as a new employee she was not entitled to full maternity leave) left many mothers concerned that she was setting back progress for women in the workplace, while others cheered that at least a woman was showing that it's possible to be a new parent and CEO of a major company.  Fortunately for her, she was able to build a nursery at work at her own expense so that she could be with her newborn at work, a luxury few, if any, of her Yahoo colleagues likely have the option to enjoy.

Just this past weekend, we find out that she is now eliminating the option of working from home for Yahoo employees.  This is already setting off a firestorm of reactions among bloggers, including Julie Ryan Evans at CafeMom who says the move is "a big slap in the face of working parents."  On FastCompany, Cali Yost describes the move as "raising the expose and challenge the misguided, faulty reasoning many leaders follow when they decide to revoke their support for flexible work."  She argues that companies that pull the plug on flexible work policies are really responding to their own lack of foresight into setting up work-from-home programs with appropriate support and monitoring, and may be passing the blame for the company's failing onto work strategies that have nothing to do with their woes.  Still others raise the point that working from home may negatively impact one's chance of a promotion.

When setting up work policies, it is important for leadership to be aware of the characteristics of their workforce.  If everyone at the company has a very high paying job and can build their own work-nursery, then perhaps working from home does not make sense.  But for the majority of people, having the flexibility to work from home, even part time, can make an enormous difference in their lives, leading to lower turnover, higher job satisfaction, and less distraction on the job.  Not to mention higher productivity.

Here is a reading list I'd recommend for learning more about the right way to do flexible work policies, which is really what this debate should be about.

  1. The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work by Arlie Hochschild.  This is a classic book that describes the work/life balance experiences of employees at a large national company.  The company had a very generous flexible work policy that no one was using, and Hochschild explains why.  This book illustrates the importance of company culture as well as the crucial role of upper management in supporting such policies if they are to be successful.
  2. Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization by Susan Cantrell and David Smith.  This book helps managers understand the value of customized work policies that take into account the specific motivations of their employees as well as business demands.  It also offers tools to develop one's own customized workforce strategy that conceptualizes employees as customers.  It's a nontraditional way of thinking about human resources management that values people and productivity.
  3. The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality by Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson.  Another great book on work/family tensions and workplace structures.
  4. Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home by Pamela Stone.  Stone interviews women who have chosen to leave the workforce to understand how workforce policies can be problematic for working parents.  She offers solutions for organizations seeking to retain these high-performing employees.
What do you think of this list?  What other books would you add?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Workers May Feel the Pinch from Health Reform

Employers play a critical role in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) as the primary providers of health insurance coverage to working adults.  A recent Gallup poll shows that over half of employers say that healthcare costs are hurting the operating environment of their business a lot, while three-quarters say it's hurting a little or a lot.

Health Reform Is Expensive for Employers

In 2014, small businesses will have to start paying for health insurance if they have 50 or more employees.  If they don't, they pay a $2,000-$3,000 fine, which is well below the cost of paying for the average employer-sponsored family health insurance premium of $15,022. Even including the average amount employees pay, about $4000, employers are still left with an average of $11,000 to pay towards health insurance premiums.  Multiply that by 50 employees (at a minimum) and we're talking an annual extra expense of $550,000.  This is not a trivial amount of money.  A half a million dollars is enough to bankrupt many small businesses, regardless of how much the owners of the business may want to provide health insurance for their employees.  Even owners of large fast food franchises like Wendy's and Taco Bell have announced they will reduce employee hours so they will not have to pay for employee health insurance.

Employees May Feel the Pinch.

That means people working for already low wages will not only be missing out on employer-sponsored health insurance that they can pay for with pre-tax dollars, but they will also be bringing home less money to pay for premiums out of pocket with post-tax dollars.  Even if employers do not cut back on the number of hours their employees work, they may cut wages, as some professors at the Wharton School suggest.  They argue that employers may keep total compensation per employee the same by reducing wages and increasing compensation in the form of health insurance premiums.

Regardless of exactly how employers will choose to address the increased cost of providing health insurance, someone has to feel the pinch.  Either the business takes the hit, or the cost is passed along to workers.

For a great visual on how health reform is projected to affect employers, check out this infographic at Entrepreneur.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"More than Just a Princess" - GoldieBlox

We hear all the time that women are underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics), with the solution usually being proposed that education and encouragement needs to happen for girls when they are young.  But just how do we make that happen?

A new startup called GoldieBlox will soon be manufacturing a toy specifically designed for young girls to teach them concepts related to engineering.  Founder Debbie Sterling raised nearly double the funding goal she set on Kickstarter, from over 5500 donors giving on average $51.  She spent a year researching the way girls play and how they would best engage with an engineering tool, discovering that girls enjoy reading much more than boys do.  By combining reading with building, Sterling has provided an enticing new way for girls to engage with engineering concepts very early on.

There is clearly a need for more STEM-inspired toys that appeal to girls.  Without getting into the whole ultra-gendered nature of kids toys and whether that's good or bad, I think we can all agree that if you walk into a toy store, there are clearly "boy" toys and "girl" toys.  Some brands, like Lego, have tried to get around this issue with gender-neutral advertising - there's a great piece on the Sociological Images blog about this campaign and why it failed.  We can learn from marketing efforts like the Bic for Her fiasco, that simply making a pink version of something is not going to cut the mustard.

And that's what I like about GoldieBlox.  It's designed from observing how girls and boys differ in how they play (whether we socialize it into them is another whole issue).  And it specifically targets those differences to get girls more interested in engineering concepts.  It doesn't just focus on making something "pretty" or smell nice or whatever it is that girls are supposed to aspire to with most of their other toys.  It looks much deeper at how girls like to play, and how that enthusiasm doesn't have to be limited to dolls playing house.

I'll end this post with a personal note about why it's so important for girls to learn about engineering at an early age.  When I was a junior in high school, I received an award from the Society of Women Engineers because I excelled at math and science.  And I and NO IDEA what an engineer was, and no idea what that meant for my own career.  And all I learned about the Society of Women Engineers is that they give high school girls awards and then never contact them again.  But maybe they've changed in the last decade.  Anyway, it did get me to look up what engineering was, and I did apply to (and was accepted to) a top engineering program for college (though opted for a traditional liberal arts college instead).  But clearly there this is not an efficient way to get girls into STEM.

There's much more work that needs to be done to encourage girls and young women to go into STEM fields, and I have personally felt this need.  We need more entrepreneurs like Debbie Sterling to develop thoughtful approaches to encouraging girls to engage in fun STEM activities.  I wish her all the best in developing her line of engineering toys that engage girls.

What do you think of STEM toys targeted at young girls?  I'd love to hear your feedback!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Broad Experience Podcast Series

I've recently discovered a podcast series about professional women that is really fantastic.  Ashley Milne-Tyte, a British-American journalist based in NYC, publishes a series of interviews with an array of accomplished leaders, all around the topics of women and work.  Each addresses an important issue for professional women, from entrepreneurship and technology to ambition and power.

She even has one on diversity training for white men, which addresses what sociologists would call intersectionality (see?  I'm bring in the Sociology here).   Intersectionality is a theory that describes a situation where two characteristics of a person, such as race and gender, when combined, amplify social inequality associated with each of the characteristics.  Two (or more) statuses can interact, usually in a negative way, to cause worse discrimination than if the person only had one of the characteristics.  So, in general, being a woman and being non-white in the US is related to more discrimination than being a white woman or a non-white man.  Of course there are always exceptions, but these terms help us to understand the unique experiences that different kinds of minorities face in work and entrepreneurship.

Each podcast is about 10 minutes, and she brings on a ton of interesting, articulate guests from a variety of industries.  Worth a listen for anyone interested in gender and social psychological processes as they happen in the workplace.  Or anyone who is looking for career guidance, or who is simply interested in understanding more about how gender affects work.

So take a break and check out The Broad Experience.  There's also a newsletter you can sign up for, as well as a Facebook group.  I, for one, look forward to seeing what she comes out with next!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why Aren't There More Female Programmers?

I usually don't get too excited about days dedicated to some historic figure, but yesterday National Geographic published an article about the October 16 being the day dedicated to the first person to write a computer program.  Why is this so interesting?  Because the first person to write a computer program was none other than poet Lord Byron's daughter, Ada Lovelace in 1843.  Very interesting considering computer most computer programmers in the US are men.

Ada Lovelace Day is marketed as a day to recognize the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. While you can read all about the many accomplishments of women in STEM fields elsewhere, what I wonder is why did something that was developed by a woman become a field entirely dominated by men?  And why aren't there more women programmers?

It could be that women just aren't good at learning how to program, and Ada Lovelace was just kind of strange.  While she may have been strange, it's unlikely that other women can't be good programmers.  Time and time again, studies show that women don't lack the brain capacity needed for programming.  First off, women are better at learning new languages than men, down to the biological level.  Second, women now score higher on IQ tests than men.  Third, women and men show no difference in the old analytical reasoning section of the GRE nor in the new analytical writing section.  So we really shouldn't be seeing differences in ability to program by gender.

Maybe women don't want to be programmers.  That's what Justin James argues when he writes that "women are not attracted to programming at all."  But if that were really so, we wouldn't see any women in programming, and it doesn't explain why 30 years ago there were nearly equal numbers of men and women in computer science courses at universities.

If it's not ability or preference, then it must be something outside a woman's control.  I don't have all the answers or explanations.  But, my earlier post on stereotype threat and organizational culture discusses how the culture of technology firms and university departments systematically excludes women, leading many to abandon the career path they otherwise would have wanted.

So on this day that at least a few people are talking about Ada Lovelace, it's a good time to think about what we can do to diversify the programming workforce and create an environment where all people can and do pursue their desired career.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Three reasons why information technology won't save health care

Between rising health care costs, increases in chronic illnesses, an aging population, and the complexity of health care reform, the US healthcare system is facing an onslaught of challenges in the coming years.  In particular, the fragmentation of health care services is a particularly strong challenge to the system as people are living longer while living with more chronic conditions that require some level of monitoring.  On top of this, administrative costs make up at least 7% to 14% of health care spending.

Some argue that administration is the problem, and that it's things like paperwork that clog up the system and make it inefficient.  Leslie Ziegler asks "Can designers and developers save health care?"  and suggests that what we're really dealing with is a design problem. She recommends that entrepreneurs focus on creating better user experiences for patients and providers.  She describes some of the innovative new products and services that have recently been developed by entrepreneurs, like an online diabetes management support group and an app for spine surgery patients to better understand their diagnosis. 

But can a few gadgets really save health care in the US?  Probably not, but it may help some people have better outcomes.  Here's a few other reasons why launching a bunch of technology solutions at health care will not save the system.

1. Too many payers and a lack of transparency.
 Many restaurants have their menus, including pricing, posted outside the front door.  Ever seen this at a doctor's office?  Didn't think so.  Transparency in pricing of medical services and procedures is remarkably absent in a so-called private "market" for health care (I guess it is so private that the prices are hidden).  While some people may argue that health care providers don't disclose prices because they are shady people, the real reason is that prices vary depending on who's paying.  Each insurance company negotiates a reimbursement rate, individuals paying out of pocket pay another rate, and Medicare/Medicaid have yet another rate with the SAME doctor for the SAME procedure.  So posting a price list clearly becomes problematic. 

As high-deductible plans and HSA accounts become more prevalent, some entrepreneurs have developed searchable price databases.  Healthcare Blue Book is one of these, as is OkCopay.  While these don't solve the transparency problem, with people becoming responsible for a larger portion of their health care payments, such databases may force physicians and hospitals to compete on pricing, potentially reducing some of the out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

2. Technology requires people who can effectively use it
3/4 of physicians say that electronic health records distract from patient care.  Less than half believe that electronic health records are designed with physicians in mind, and the percentage of physicians who have a favorable opinion of electronic health records has decreased from 39% in 2011 to 32% in 2012. Design may be a large part of the problem with successful use of digital technology in health care, but that's only part of the answer.

Your new app may be super easy to use, but integrating new technology into an existing organization with its own culture is about more than just learning how.  People come with all kinds of preconceptions about how technology can enable or hinder their goals.  And they might feel like the new technology is just out of place with their daily activities. Enter Christian Briggs and Kevin Makice of SociaLens, who have developed an assessment tool for organizations aspiring to implement new technology, measuring what they call "digital readiness."  Understanding digital readiness can help an organization (or an entrepreneur) to figure out how users might respond to an innovative technology in the context of their work environment.

3. Human error.
The recent story about a nurse throwing away a kidney that was being donated by a living man to his sister illustrates that no matter what else is going on, and no matter how important the task is, people do stupid things.  Wasteful things.  Things that can kill people.  200,000 people die every year from preventable medical errors, more than the number of those who die in car crashes each year.

There is no technology that can completely solve this problem, but if patients have better ways of educating themselves about their health and health care through the use of new technology, we stand a chance at being advocates for ourselves. 

Technology has the potential to drastically change the way that health care is delivered, financed, and taught.  But it's no panacea.  We need to be aware of the ways in which health care, technology, and culture interact when proposing new user-friendly designs.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why age matters for startups - it's not a young person's game

When it comes to startups, and especially tech startups, there is always buzz about the breakthrough startup companies that have made it big.  Everyone knows that the founder of Facebook is a young man who's now a bazillionaire before he's even turned 30.  And there are many more stories of young people, usually dudes, who have made millions in their twenties.  Even awards for inventors and entrepreneurs are often limited to those under age 30, for example, the Alva Emerging Fellowship, and the Inc Magazine 30 under 30.  While certainly commendable for the individuals featured in these prestigious awards and publications, all this focus on youth can seem daunting to the over-30 crowd.

But fear not - Looking at successful CEOs and heads of engineering and product development at technology companies, a research team at Harvard and MIT found that twice as many successful tech entrepreneurs had started businesses in their 50s as did those in their 20s. 

Why are older entrepreneurs more successful?

It shouldn't be surprising that older entrepreneurs are more successful than younger entrepreneurs.  Tthe longer you're around, you've had more time to build up your personal network of people who are able to support you in your startup, whether financially, instrumentally, or just with plain old advice.  Pierre Bourdieu, a famous sociologist, called this "social capital," and it's thought of as a sort of bank account that gets built up depending partly on age, but also on other factors like level of education, wealth, and work experience.

Social capital helps to explain why college dropouts (particularly those from Harvard and other prestigious institutions) can make it big in tech startups.  The very same social capital that helped them get into the college in the first place is the same social capital that enables them to connect with investors and obtain other kinds of support that startups need to survive.  There's a reason we don't see many students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds dropping out of college and giving up their scholarships to start businesses - they don't have access to the social capital that young people from a more privileged background have.

Another important concept is "cultural capital."  This is the social knowledge you need to get by in a particular type of social situation, such as knowing whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek as a greeting.  It's knowing that wearing a three-piece suit to an interview at a tech company means you're probably overdressed and look like you're trying too hard - where's your 5 o'clock shadow?  Or that certain words should not be used in certain company.  This is the kind of capital that also enables success in multiple areas, and why those who blend in with the kinds of people already in the field have a greater chance of obtaining venture capital.  Do you talk the talk and walk the walk?  Come right in!

So don't think of your age as an impediment, think of it as an asset, a form of capital that can be used to obtain the kind of capital that really matters for your startup, whether cash or guidance or access to people who can help you.