Over the weekend, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton School Professor Adam Grant commented in a New York Times OpEd on women in the workplace doing “office housework” – tasks that go unnoticed and undercompensated: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/opinion/
I have observed this in my capacity as in-house counsel to a number of companies. It is disproportionately women who stay late and work on tasks that, in their view, “have to be done” even if they are low profile – the “office housework”. Often this work is crucial to the bottom line of the organization, but the pay-off to the person performing those tasks is non-existent. In fact, it is the very consequence of doing such a great job, and making it all appear so seamless, that marks this work as “invisible”.
Watching this, the thought occurred to me that many of these women were using the housekeeping skills that are either genetically imprinted or acquired through socialization, and they were also “nurturing” the corporation. These women cared more about the greater good of the corporate “family” than about their own advancement, and brought all the same skills that make for a healthy family into the workplace.
In my view, this is a good thing, and corporations need to figure out how to harness the power of this traditionally female trait, rather than encouraging women to stop doing these things or find ways to fit them into more traditional corporate boxes, as Sandberg and Grant suggest.
In their article they use the example of a female executive who spent time mentoring junior associates from other departments. She was promoted after efficiently converting all those one-on-one meetings to a group lunch and learn. Although potentially more time-efficient, the lunch and learn is not necessarily a better use of time. If those one-on-one meetings were fulfilling to the executive, and at the same time gave her the opportunity to get to know a new generation at her company more intimately, and hear their concerns and ideas, the meetings could provide an authentic information-gathering opportunity that would be of significant benefit to the corporation as a whole. A lunch and learn probably would not do that.
In other words, it is too easy to call these activities “unimportant” or “inefficient”, and thereby miss the value they bring when performed by someone who is fulfilled by them and does them well.
At Inter Alia Law, our mission is to help our clients focus on whatever tasks fulfill them, by streamlining the little things that keep them from being able to work on the things that most fire them up. Some of this could be characterized as “office housework”, but we find doing it fulfilling. Our calling is to help people restore balance and reclaim what matters in their lives – if we can accomplish that by helping out with office housework, so be it!
To illustrate this point: We were recently called in to assist a client manage contract volume. The idea was that we would work on the extra contracts that were bogging them down. As part of this, we noticed the company spent a significant amount of business and lawyer’s time reviewing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) from third parties. Rather than charging the client fees every time they sent an NDA our way to review, we “cleaned house”. We set up a single NDA template, as well as a policy on how the company would handle NDAs in future. We educated the business team on when it was appropriate to enter into mutual NDAs, and explained why using our standard form would assist revenue-generating deals to move through the pipeline faster. We then set up a contract management system where all of the NDAs could be uploaded and kept in one place. The client now enters into a fraction of the NDAs it used to, saving them lawyer’s time and reducing risk.
In short, we identified a problem that was keeping our client from getting deals done quickly (deals that were of utmost importance to our client and its board of directors). NDAs were a thorn in their side that is now much less of a problem. This was a simple investment of a few hours of time that will save hundreds of hours per year. Turning NDAs was not something our client enjoyed doing, but they hadn’t historically made time to do an overhaul of their internal system that would save countless hours in the future.
This is the kind of thing we love to do. It involved a bit of what may be described as “office housework”, (certainly it was not the type of thing that would get anyone promoted all on its own) but it will be important in freeing up legal time to achieve extraordinary results and increases in productivity for our client.