The De-Networked Worker
Networking is key to career success, but it consumes time and keeps you away from home. No wonder it's a nightmare for employees seeking work life balance argues Helen McCarthy
Networking is the new black. It goes with everything. Short of joining a monastery or becoming a professional hermit, it’s difficult to think of any occupation in 21 st century Britain where proven competency in networking wouldn’t make you a more attractive proposition. These days, employers don’t just hire your skills. They hire your address book too.
And once you’re in, the ability to build relationships with colleagues, to make the right connections across departmental boundaries, and generally to be a hub through which knowledge flows is what all learning organisations need from their people. The growing field of social network analysis promises to unlock these secrets by mapping the informal ties that exist between employees in any given corporation. It’s networks, not company trees that tell you the real story behind organisational effectiveness. If you can get the right people talking to each other, then, as network expert Karen Stephenson argues: ‘two can perform the work of four’.
Networking is of course a personal career strategy too. It’s how we hear about jobs in the pipeline and where we find our allies who’ll push them our way. It’s often through networking with colleagues that we divine the unspoken ways of our company or industry and learn the unwritten scripts of how to get ahead.
But what does the high value placed on networks and networking mean for employers looking to offer staff an outside chance of a balanced life? In short, it spells trouble.
Just like every other powerful social resource, the opportunity to network effectively is not equally distributed between individuals and social groups. Those – and, more often than not, it’s women - working part-time, term-time, compressed or annualised hours or any other variation on the traditional model of full-time employment, are immediately at risk of becoming what, for loss of a better word, can only be described as ‘de-networked’.
The two key factors in play here are time and space. Firstly, networking takes time. It fills your breakfasts, lunch hours and evenings if you let it. It clogs up your inbox. It keeps your mobile phone permanently engaged. And in the fastpaced global economy of the 21st century, time is something that many of us, especially those with families and caring responsibilities, do not have. Flexible working may give us more of it, but it’s time needed for wheeling the trolley round Sainsburys, or for bedtime stories or for talking to partners - not for whipping out a business card at everything that moves.
Secondly, networking happens in dedicated spaces. These can be as everyday as round the office water-cooler or as glitzy as The Ivy. Networking doesn’t usually happen round the kitchen table, making home-working - another favourite in the work-life balance repertoire – a risk factor for becoming seriously de-networked.
Sure, phone and email both help, but they do so by supporting rather than substituting for relationships that have already been established through faceto- face interactions. That’s how the strongest bonds are forged and the golden trust is created.
Despite the proliferation of flexible working policies, it’s the failure of employers to recognise the place of networks and networking at work that makes balanced lives so difficult for individuals to achieve. Most large corporations have cultures that create constraints around both time and space. The norm, especially at senior levels, remains one of presenteeism and being available 24/7 or as close as goddamit.
This means that workers who spend time away from the office – taking career breaks to start families, reducing their hours or switching to home-working to look after those families – are instantly at risk of becoming ‘de-networked’ and hence deemed less effective and less dedicated to their jobs.
However, there is hope for work-life balance in a networked workplace.
For a start, the incentives to find solutions are only going to grow. The traditional model of full-time work is not going to retain its dominance for much longer. Research shows that increasing numbers of job-seekers - and not just working mothers at that - want flexibility. The employers that will thrive in this new reality are those who find creative ways of preventing de-networking and promoting re-networking amongst at-risk groups within the workforce.
Some are already doing so. Employee networks, for example, are an excellent tool for developing social capital in the workplace. Women's networks in particular are prevalent in organisations across a range of industries and sectors, and help members to broaden and deepen their personal and professional contacts. Mentoring or buddying schemes also help, as do career progression structures that encourage horizontal as well as vertical mobility.
Ultimately, though, employers must think much more intelligently about how their employees are connected - to current and future clients, to suppliers and partners, and to each other, and how these patterns map onto needs and pressures around time and space. If it sounds a bit like playing multidimensional chess, then you're beginning to get the idea. Let’s hope we’re all up to the challenge.
and further reading:
Helen McCarthy (2004) Girlfriends in High Places: how women's networks are changing the workplace (Demos)
© Work-Life balance part of The Work Foundation 2005