With Christmas seemingly synonymous with families, coupled with the fact that I have had the good fortune to ‘catch up’’ with old co-workers in the month of December, the concept of the ‘work family’ has been on my mind.
The Vanier Institute (vanierinstitute.ca) recognizes that the traditional definition of a family has changed over time and that many combinations of people can be considered a family:
“Any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together, assume responsibilities for variant combinations of some of the following:
· Physical maintenance and care of group members
· Addition of new members through procreation or adoption
· Socialization of children
· Social control of members
· Production, consumption, distribution of goods and services
· Affective nurturance – love”
Further, The Vanier Institute goes on to say:
“The definition includes at least one relationship between an adult and another person (adult or child) – a relationship over time, which signifies that a commitment has been made.”
Our work group was together for 37 hours a week, some for 30+ years. Our long-time manager would frequently remind us (maybe when we were behaving like children!) that we were ‘family’, a work family. It turns out that this term, or feeling, or belief might be a little outdated – or, at least, changed in scope over the years.
It is not surprising that much has been written about the current work environment given the economy, reliance on technology, and the ongoing COVID crisis which seems to have altered everything. It’s a topic worth checking out. Here is some input from only a couple of sources.
In www.fastcompany.com, in an article entitled Why Having a ‘Work Family’ is Actually Hustle Culture At Its Worst by Kirin Rai, the idea is presented that the traditional concept of the ‘work family’ is hindering productivity in today’s workplace. This article, I believe, was written for private business but there seems to be some applicable ideas for any work culture, public service included. The article identifies that the work world is not like it was when our generation was employed. Today, there is much greater lack of predictability about job stability. (It quotes the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the USA which identifies that the average length of employment now is about four years; again there are many sources of information about employment longevity, age groups, reasons for changing jobs, etc; side note - it's no longer a bad thing to change jobs!) Staff are pressured to perform. If they do not, they jeopardize their employment status. Also, the existence of technology makes everyone ever-present, even on weekends and holidays when they set family aside to perform job functions. The article suggests that employers might not extend the same degree of unconditional love and warmth that a family does – and maybe not to the extent as in employment years past. I would add that with the dependency on technology, in-person contact such as office chats, meetings, and conferences is limited. (It was thought that one of the meaningful roles of in-person office meetings and conferences was the socializing and relationship building that went on outside the office. Does anyone remember staying in hotels and meeting together after the day's session - so much fun. Also, with the reliance on technology and working from home, it’s impossible to bounce down the hall and flop in a co-worker’s office and say “You are not going to believe what just happened . . . “as was frequently the case in careers gone by.)
Kirin Rai goes on to point out that, in 2016, a poll of Baby Boomers by the Associated Press revealed that over 40% had worked for the same employer for over 20 years (compare that to the current employment longevity statistics!). This length of time covers a lot of “life phases” including marriage, having children, illnesses, and deaths amongst the same group of workers. I believe these shared events and experiences undoubtedly lead to feelings of attachment to each other. The article further states that the existence and expectation of a financial pension after years of service (financial stability) lead to a degree of trust between the employer and the employee. Plus, this feeling of job longevity helped the employee differentiate between weekends and the work week, not feeling that he or she had to produce on what should be down time. I would add, then, that it also lead to feelings of belonging, comfort, and commitment. (Statistics Canada reveals that, in 2019, only 37% of total employees - 87% of public service and only 23% of private employees - could look forward to a pension.
But has the idea of the ‘work family’ died completely or is it, just like the Vanier Institute re-defines the evolving nature of families, simply evolving with time?
Jason Lauritsen, in an article entitled Should Work Be “Like a Family?” on the ADP SPARK website, adp.com (ADP is a world-wide company focussed on human resource management and business solutions) points out that work is not a family because, in a true family, membership is a birthright, and there is no specific identified purpose as there is in an employment group. Further, he cautions about the use of the word family as that might invoke negative memories from dysfunctional upbringings. However, he points out that we can make work to feel like a family with the following qualities: commitment, caring, communication, and acceptance (the point is, "feel like" as opposed to"is").
Looking back at my career, there was a tight group of about 10 of us who worked together from our 20’s to our early 60’s. One of the big differences, I believe, between our career years and the current work environment is that for us, for the most part, entering our particular public service profession was a goal – not just a stop-gap measure or stepping stone to the next job (I know, times have changed). That brought about a large commitment to the profession. We experienced together, as the article noted, romances, marriages, sadnesses, deaths of co-workers, personal heartbreaks, work crises, and policy and leadership changes. We knew each other’s emotions like we knew ourselves, and sometimes better. When younger, we worked together during the day and often ‘hung out’ together in our free time. We all worked together in a difficult profession with a common goal of helping people steer their lives on track. We shared a mutual respect for each other, despite the odd tiff. We laughed and we cried together. We were all different and all strong-minded. We fit together perfectly. Sometimes, we did not appreciate each other enough and we probably did not realize how fortunate we were at the time to belong to this group. In short, we became fully functioning adults together. Does that not sound just a bit like a family? Was this healthy? Did it just work for the times and is now obsolete with technology, career opportunities, and a different mindset of employees and employers?
We all gradually retired, and there is none of our original group that is still working. We might not be in daily, or even monthly, contact but, here we are, years later, tightly connected by common ‘stories’ and concern for each other. We email, text, talk by phone, and get together when Covid allows. Some of us go for walks or meet up for coffee. Some of us golf together. When we talk or meet up, it is like no time has passed. And if we are ever short on topics, one of us just has to say, “Do you remember when . . . . .?”
I don’t know which view of the work family is true – was it ever really “a thing” and if so, is it now ‘dead’? Or maybe it's just evolving, unrecognizable to our generation, just like the face of the workplace itself has been changed by the economy, technology, social trends, and generational thinking? Whichever is the case, it is all alright. Society changes, generations change, and employments change to meet the times. Each generation has it's own way of doing things.
All I know, as I sit here in retirement and think of my recent contacts with our little group and of the current nature of the workplace, is that the existing workforce will be fine, but I question if they will feel the same attachment as we did and do - not connected by blood but also more than just ‘friends’.
Even if there is some form of ‘work family’ in the new workplace, I am thankful that I had the great fortune of sharing a career, and the highs and the lows, at the exact time I did, with these exact people.