Sociological concepts that help explain why some companies are telling employees to avoid work email at home

Some companies are telling their employees to not check their work email at home:

In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.

For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say…

“There is no question e-mail is an important tool, but it’s just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance,” said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.

Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

Three sociological ideas shed some light on this:

1. This increased level of stress might be due to the mixing of the front-stage and back-stage performances of employees. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about these two settings, the first where we play a role, in this case as employee, and this requires emotional and physical energy. In the latter setting, we can let down our guard. Checking work email at home means this back-stage setting is interrupted.

2. This reminds me of the work by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng on the symbolic boundaries between home and work. We place home and work in certain mental categories and so crossing these boundaries can create some difficulties. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg suggested another way around these two symbolic boundaries: we need “third places” like coffee shops and pubs where workers can relax and interact with other citizens in settings distinct from work and home.

3. A few centuries ago, more average citizens may have mixed home and work as people worked in their homes or very near by. It wasn’t until the industrial era that more employees had to travel further to their workplaces, creating a larger physical difference between home and work that also translated into more symbolic difference. Perhaps this story about email is a reminder that at this point in history we are swinging back to mixing  home and work because of technology that transcends physical boundaries.

The gendered tasks you do at work can affect the gendered work you do at home

A new study in the American Journal of Sociology looks at what men who work in female-dominated careers do at home:

When stacked up against men who have jobs where men and women are equally represented, men in gender-atypical jobs put in an extra hour each week on typically male housework. What’s more, these men’s wives stick to female-typed tasks, spending about four hours more each week cooking dinner, vacuuming or throwing in a load of laundry. Meanwhile, women who work in male-centric professions also tend to pursue more female-typed housework but not with the same consistency as men in female-dominated arenas — perhaps because they perceive it as less of a threat to their femininity. (It should also be noted that a different study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that doing housework after a day on the job isn’t good for anyone, regardless of gender.)

What’s going on here? It seems to be a manifestation of what sociologists call the “neutralization of gender deviance.” Or, in plainspeak, “men are trying to bolster their masculinity at home,” says Daniel Schneider, the study’s author and a doctoral student in sociology and social policy at Princeton University…

Truth be told, Schneider was surprised by the findings. He’d expected to discover that men in gender-typical jobs — a mechanic, for example — would spend more time at home working on car or home maintenance. By that logic, he also anticipated that men in male-atypical jobs would come home and do more cooking and cleaning-type housework typically associated with women.

But humans don’t always make sense. “The market and home are really intertwined and influence each other,” says Schneider. “But they are not necessarily intertwined in a rational way. Instead, they’re intertwined in a way that’s about cultural salience and the meaning of gender.”

In other words: gender norms and expectations influence how people act. If we were to interview men who work in more female fields, would they be able to describe this process discovered in survey data? Also,  I wonder if this is tied to the amount of time people spend at work.

More broadly, this is a reminder that what happens in our career or at the workplace has an influence on other areas of our life. On one hand, perhaps this seems fairly obvious: our culture is one where people are defined by their occupation and what they do. As I tell my students, when you meet people as an adult, the first or one of the first questions you tend to be asked is, “what do you do [for work, a living]?” These puts a lot of pressure on individuals to have meaningful jobs. On the other hand, we tend to act like we can compartmentalize work and home. This goes back into history as there was a separation of home and work only in the Industrial Revolution as jobs moved out of the household or close by to larger factories and offices owned by corporations. While technology may have blurred the lines in recent decades, we still tend to have strong physical and mental boundaries between home and work.

Considering how much time full-time workers put into their jobs today, it should be little surprise that it is hard to keep these spheres apart. At the same time, specifying how it affects other areas of our lives is worth considering.

Housing, IP, and Disney

A New York Times article from last week reports on the convergence of housing, intellectual property, and the Walt Disney Corporation in a recently built suburban home near Salt Lake City:

The sherbet-colored structure sits at the intersection of Meadowside Drive and Herriman Rose Boulevard here, but you don’t need directions to find it. Just look for the swarm of helium-filled balloons that the developer tied to the chimney of a house that has a gabled roof, scalloped siding and a garden hose neatly coiled next to the porch — all details taken from “Up,” the 2009 hit about an old man and his flying abode.

Developer Blair Bangerter duplicated Pixar’s Up house with as much fidelity as physical reality would allow.  And he got permission to do this from Disney!  As the article notes, getting such permission from Disney is highly unusual:

This is a company that once forced a Florida day care center to remove an unauthorized Minnie Mouse mural. More recently, Disney told a stonemason that carving Winnie the Pooh into a child’s gravestone would violate its copyright [though it later “reversed its ruling on that Winnie the Pooh tombstone after the news media reported the rejection”].

So how is a homebuilder in this Salt Lake City suburb getting away with selling a near-identical copy of the floating house in the Disney-Pixar film “Up”?

Although Disney declined to comment for the story, the article suggests several reasons:

  • The developer is the son of a former Utah governor.
  • The developer was able to convince Up‘s director, Pete Docter, to “personally intervened on behalf of the project.”
  • Disney “is trying to evaluate with more care the hundreds of requests it receives a month from people wanting to use its characters and imagery.”

Taking these suggested reasons at face value, it sounds like Mr. Bangerter obtained permission primarily because (a) he was well-connected and (b) Disney sensed a PR opportunity.  There are at least two ways of interpreting this:

  1. Bangerter and Disney saw a market opportunity and bargained to create value.  Most homes in the subdivision are priced around $300,000; the Up home is listed at $400,000.  Disney is often seen as an IP bully; it now looks a bit nicer.  Thus, a deal between Bangerter and Disney created almost $100k in new economic value for the developer and (possible) new goodwill towards Disney.
  2. IP is being used here to create an unnecessary monopoly rent to benefit the already well-connected.  It’s hard to see how Disney would suffer any economic loss if everyone were free to build Up houses–Disney is in the business of selling media and related merchandise, but generally not houses.  However, since everyone is presumably not free to build Up houses, Bangerter and Disney had to spend time and money hammering out an agreement.  As a result of their agreement, Bangerter (apparently) gets ~$100k more for the Up house than he gets for comparable houses in the subdivision, and Disney successfully pacifies a politically powerful developer.

Especially insofar as Disney only considers such deals with well-connected developers like Bangerter, the IP issues quickly blur into fairness issues.

More Americans eating at home

One of the questions to emerge out of this recent recession is which pre-recession patterns will return once the economic climate improves. One report suggests that although spending levels have increased again, eating at home might be a more permanent pattern:

Restaurants traditionally have led other types of businesses out of a recession. This time, they’re at least a year and a half behind retailers. Sales of clothing grew 5 percent last year and autos rose 11 percent, as Americans started feeling better about their finances. At casual sit-down restaurants like Outback Steakhouse, the increase was just 1 percent. Some analysts say that could be the new norm…

Americans lead the world in restaurant spending. About 44 percent of food dollars are spent outside the home — a figure that started rising sharply in the 1970s, as more women joined the work force. Full-service restaurant revenue rose 5 to 7 percent a year in the decade leading up to the Great Recession, which halted growth. Over the next decade, visits to restaurants are forecast to increase less than 1 percent a year, according to the NPD Group. That’s less than the population will grow.

Instead of handing their money over to mediocre eateries during the week, people are saving up for the occasional nice meal, says Stifel Nicolaus analyst Steve West. Meanwhile, cooking has become hip, says Rick Smilow, president of the Institute for Culinary Education, where registration for recreational courses was up 10 percent last year.

It would be interesting to see more data on this: how many of these meals at home are made out of mostly fresh ingredients? What kind of food are people spending money on – taking that restaurant money to buy more expensive items or trying to eat on the cheap? How much less are people spending on food overall as they eat out less?

The perception about eating at home might be crucial. The idea that cooking is now “hip” could be tied to a number of factors including more upscale grocery stores (the equivalent of shopping at Whole Foods versus Wal-Mart), a number of celebrity chefs, and around-the-clock cooking shows. Eating at home may be good for the financial bottom line but it will appeal to a lot more people if it is cool.

The poor cleaniness of home kitchens

Occasionally, one can find stories about how dirty homes can be. Here is more evidence, this time regarding unclean kitchens:

The small study from California’s Los Angeles County found that only 61 percent of home kitchens would get an A or B if put through the rigors of a restaurant inspection. At least 14 percent would fail — not even getting a C.

In comparison, nearly all Los Angeles County restaurants — 98 percent — get A or B scores each year.

On its own, these are interesting results: restaurant kitchens are generally more clean than home kitchens. But there is more to this story: how exactly researchers found out about the kitchens.

The study, released Thursday, is believed to be one of the first to offer a sizable assessment of food safety in private homes. But the researchers admit the way it was done is hardly perfect.

The results are based not on actual inspections, but on an Internet quiz taken by about 13,000 adults .

So it’s hard to use it to compare the conditions in home kitchens to those in restaurants, which involve trained inspectors giving objective assessments of dirt, pests, and food storage and handling practices.

What’s more, experts don’t believe the study is representative of all households, because people who are more interested and conscientious about food safety are more likely to take the quiz.

A more comprehensive look would probably find that an even smaller percentage of home kitchens would do well in a restaurant inspection, he suggested.

On one hand, this sounds like innovative research that is the first to provide a broad overview of the cleanliness of American kitchens. On the other hand, the way the data was collected suggests one should be wary about making definitive conclusions.

The online quiz is also reliant on self-reporting.