CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND THE WORKPLACE

UPDATE ON THE SIXTH MEETING OF THE SAGUARO SEMINAR:

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT IN AMERICA AND THE WORKPLACE
[List of related readings and links]

Note: this is only a description of some of the issues and ideas considered. For our official set of recommendations, see our BetterTogether report.

The sixth Saguaro Seminar (Saguaro VI) met outside of New York City in October, 1998 at the Pocantico Conference Center (of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund) and focused on work and civic engagement.

Given the centrality of the workplace and work to Americans, it is hard to imagine we can re-engage Americans civicly without re-engaging employees at their workplaces, and with their employer’s help, in their communities. The average American adult spends a large and increasing majority of waking hours at work and work has become an important center of meaning, affiliation, and social support to a typical American. Since people divorce more often, marry later, and live alone in unprecedented numbers, work is likely the civic hearth for many solitary souls. And even those Americans living with spouse and children see the workplace as increasingly a sanctuary from the stresses and strains of marriage, child rearing, and household maintenance. Overwhelmingly, surveys tell us, people number co-workers among their closest friends, and often turn to co-workers before a spouse in times of need.

It is little surprise, thus, that some groups have taken note. Social workers have begun to view the work place as an arena for practice: counseling employees, setting up formal programs of recreational and community-oriented activities, and sometimes helping build trust and cooperation between management and labor. Architects are reconfiguring offices so employees can communicate and socialize more easily. While the United Way has long turned to the work place for contributions, charitable organizations now look to friendship networks at companies to recruit volunteers.

All this activity has led critics to philosophize whether social engagement is really in decline. Despite a lack of strong quantitative counter-evidence, Poarch recently questioned the civic decline proffered by scholars like Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart), Alan Ehrenhalt (The Lost City), Adam Walinksy (“The Crisis of the Public Order,” in The Atlantic), and Robert Putnam (“Bowling Alone” and its progeny). Instead, Poarch and others argue that social-capital building has migrated from the local neighborhood to the work place. She concludes that conceptions of community need to be reconsidered; we must explore how concerns and activities of both private (family) and public (social and political) life occur in the workplace, before we accept notions of a social capital decline.

Unfortunately, few business and social science researchers have systematically studied “work-place social capital.” While Marks argues that “traveling, commuting, lunches, even work breaks with co-workers can foster close relationships that go well beyond mere friendliness,” these relationships have rarely been studied other than for their impact on productivity. In fact, feminist scholars are responsible for most of the recent work on coworker intimacy.

Even beyond the lack of formal scholarly research, six key developments, inside and outside the office, make it difficult to judge intuitively whether these demographic and business-sector trends yield a net gain or loss to our stock of social capital:

Increased centrality of work. Because a record proportion of the population is working (and living alone), and a smaller proportion is joining voluntary organizations, a larger share of all interpersonal contacts are occurring on the job. However, changing patterns of employment – layoffs, the salary gap, use of temporary or contingent workers – threaten to undermine the sense of trust and belonging that normally occur when people associate in close quarters. Moreover, globalization increases corporate pressure to focus on the bottom line. Mergers and other corporate consolidations reduce the number of corporations and employees with local “roots” and increase the number of mid-managers in charge of a city’s operations for a company without any personal long-term ties to that city, and lacking the autonomy or motivation to get their company more involved in its community. Globalization increases the number of corporations that are nominal “citizens” of the world, but often makes them less active citizens than when their roots were more localized.
Office-centered group activities. On the one hand, civic, recreational, and other social activities once organized outside the office are now organized within it. On the other hand, the climate of uncertainty in many companies places great pressure on workers to work long hours– displacing family time and leaving few hours for regular socializing with coworkers. Additionally, the traditional center of work-place affiliation and support – the trade union – has become nearly obsolete in many industries.

Work-place diversity
On the one hand, the typical American is more likely to have meaningful contacts at work with people of different races, classes, and backgrounds than in any other sphere – making the office or factory an important venue for “bridging social capital.” On the other hand, resentment over affirmative action hiring and workplace discrimination hinder “bridging” relationships from occurring. Professionalization of human services. On the one hand, more and more Americans are employed in the service sector, doing jobs that once would have fallen to volunteers at churches, civic organizations, and voluntary charities. On the other hand, it is unclear whether paid employment of this sort affords the same benefits to the workers themselves or society at large, as do voluntary efforts to build and maintain social capital.

Team-based management
Over the past two decades, the “wisdom of teams” has become corporate gospel, in theory if not always in fact. Working in teams should enhance both the quality and the diversity of the average employee’s contacts within the corporation. However, the fluidity of teams means that the contacts may not be either deep or long lasting. More weak or ephemeral links may replace the few strong or dependable ones that existed.

Work-place spillover
There is some evidence that a person’s experience at work influences his or her moods and attitudes toward life and others; this in turn may affect his/her willingness to build social capital within the family and society. However, it is an open empirical question whether today’s corporate climate is improving the moods and attitudes of spouses, parents, and citizens.

The whole inquiry is complicated by the question of motivation. For-profit businesses are out to make money, and often develop social capital as a vehicle to achieve that goal. We speak of networks of trust as a “good thing”, but business settings have often given “networking” a pejorative implication. Even corporate philanthropy can be made subservient to marketing opportunities or provide funding without building social capital.

Finally the data seem mixed; there are some hopeful signs:

The 1997 NSCW (The National Study of the Changing Workforce) Families and Work Institute survey (of employees in firms with more than 100 employees) shows 26% of employees do or can work part of the week at home. Two out of five working parents with children under 6 report that it is hard to take time off during the day for family or personal issues, but over 60% did not feel that way.
About two-thirds "strongly agree" that their supervisors accommodate them and are understanding when work-family issues arise. 44% of employed parents with young children have access to traditional flextime. However, NSCW is more sanguine on two fronts: Only two-fifths strongly feel comfortable raising work-family issues and believe that their supervisors really care about the effect of work demands on their personal or family lives. Further, some three-of-ten employed parents surveyed perceive their workplace cultures as not supportive of their personal and family concerns.

At Saguaro VI, we focused on policies to make workplaces the loci of stronger bonds of trust and reciprocity, and how to connect employees better into the surrounding communities where they lived. Specifically, we discussed strategies for building associationalism among the growing ranks of often disconnected independent workers, extending “work-family” programs into the community, and the need for better metrics to measure the community connectedness that businesses are fostering.

Independent Workers As corporations have come under greater cost pressure, more work has been farmed out to contingent workers (“temps”), whose ranks have tripled from 800,000 daily temps in 1986 to 2.4 million by 1998. Temps, independent workers, and the ranks of the self-employed now make up 30% of the workforce. For an elite slice of workers, temp/freelance/consulting work may be social-capital-friendly, enabling these workers to work fewer than 40 hours a week, to tailor their hours and to spend more time with family or on community projects. Nevertheless, experts believe that the majority of temp workers are temps not by choice, but because they cannot obtain full-time jobs with benefits. These lower-tier temps have less certainty and often feel economic pressure to work when temp work is available (whether it meets their ideal schedule or not). Still another group are fast-growing “long-term temps” who work flexible hours for one company for at least a year, but lack benefits.

Among temps, there have been several efforts to create stability for contingent workers, through unions, cooperatives, and other institutions. The focus of these efforts is primarily on economic issues (providing benefits to temps, enabling temps to learn about the quality of assignments, etc.). In some cases, unions have tried to get union representation spanning several workplaces and employers so the union could cover temps who migrated from company to company within an industry. Unions have often reported difficulty in getting temps to come to organizing meetings; while this possibly reflects temps’ lack of interest in unions, it probably speaks to the lack of control many feel over their schedules. An interesting working paper by Robert Laubacher and Thomas Malone inquires into whether such flexible work arrangements could drive the growth of 21st Century Guilds.

At Saguaro VI, we discussed what can be done to reconnect independent workers who run the risk of being less connected to workplace institutions. We heard from Working Today and MacTemps. Working Today is a non-profit, organizing independent workers across the socioeconomic range, and encompassing some 60,000 individuals through individual and group memberships. Working Today provides access to cheaper benefits, lobbyies for better laws and tax policies, and strives to foster community and guilds among independent workers. MacTemps is a for-profit, high-tech temp placement agency that is increasingly redefining itself around providing services to independent workers, including providing community.

Corporate values and philanthropy
To some extent, all business strategies have corporations playing a central role. Nevertheless, some believe that the central values and role of the corporation itself (as distinct from, for example, a Human Resources program) can play a critical role in galvanizing community engagement or, conversely in undermining other efforts within the corporation. We discussed earlier in a note, some of the dominant values (like Milton Friedman’s corporate credo that the role of the corporation is to maximize shareholder profits) that curb corporate community engagement. Some corporations, like Eli Lilly or BankBoston are making sure that these community engagement programs are rooted in central corporate values. [For an excellent statement of what this looks like, read a copy of Eli Lilly CEO Randall Tobias’ "Global Transformations: Lessons for American Business"- a speech to the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, May 5, 1998]

Above and beyond examining such programs, we need to look at the motivation for such programs and the source of business incentives to adopt such standards. Some corporations root civic participation in altruism, others make community engagement subservient to corporate marketing (i.e., attempting to increase demand for a product or service by those who like the philanthropy), and some believe that this behavior unlocks new profitable market segments. Some think that government must play a regulatory role to get corporations to adopt such “social capital”-friendly practices (even if the government simply announces a standard and lets corporations find the easiest means of compliance), and others believe that corporations will naturally and voluntarily take on these roles.

A final view is that corporations are doing too much (and have too much expected of them) already and unless both civic groups and the government partner with business around these community issues, little can be expected.

One possible answer for how workplaces can spur greater civic engagement is through workplace-based volunteering. Although some are bullish on this front, the hard data available suggests that, if anything, such volunteering is decreasing.

Additional Resources and Readings:
Information on Work and Civic Engagement



The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America - Harvard Kennedy School of Government
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