The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home & Home Becomes Work

Officespace_lumbergh A month ago, I picked up The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work from the town library. I read a few chapters, but it threw me into a tailspin of despair and I had to skip to the last chapter.

Hochschild interviewed all levels of employees at unnamed corporation on one of those meticulously landscaped office parks that are nestled into suburban communities. She wanted to find out how the workers juggled their lives at work and at home and whether they took advantage of the company's work-life programs. In addition to in-depth interviews, she followed them around the office and observed them at home. It was certainly thorough research.

She found that few employees were taking advantage of the company's work flexibility packages. Some really needed that flexibility, but couldn't leave work because of old stodgy bosses. Others didn't leave work early, because they didn't want to. They liked their neat and tidy lives in the office. Their officemates had become their family. Their real family was needy and demanding and complicated. It was much nicer to come into the office with tidy clothes and leave the kids and their spouse behind. 

Hochschild is very pessimistic about these developments. You feel her sympathy for the abandoned families and her disgust at people who have sold their souls to the company. There were too many forces working against change in the workplace. By the end of the book, a downturn in the economy meant that the flexibility program was entirely discarded.

She has wonderful little observations about corporate life. For example, she notes the differing ways that people display pictures in their office. The lower level workers, such as the secretaries, had informal pictures of their kids taped discretely to their computer screens, so they could look at their kids while they worked. Upper level management did things differently. The men had formal shots of their kids in expensive frames on credenzas behind them. The pictures were for other people to look at, like trophies. The female managers had no pictures of their children in the office at all.

While these sorts of case studies are wonderful for providing thick descriptions, I was left unsure of how typical this office was. What happens in other companies, in other industries, in other parts of the country? The book was published in 1997, which isn't that long ago, but I worried that the findings in the book were a little dated.

21 thoughts on “The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home & Home Becomes Work

  1. Wow, I certainly hope people aren’t trying to figure out my feelings about my family based on the placement of photographs in my office. In fact, that’s the reason I try to communicate as little as possible about my personal life: people think they know you, and they make all sorts of judgments, but they don’t know you.
    I know I sound like Britney Spears.

  2. “In fact, that’s the reason I try to communicate as little as possible about my personal life: people think they know you, and they make all sorts of judgments, but they don’t know you.”
    I’m thinking of The Office and Michael Scott’s misunderstanding of Stanley’s photo of his daughter in Catholic school uniform.

  3. I just read Snoop, by Sam Gosling, in which he discusses family pictures at work and how where they are tells you at least as much as of whom they are.
    Pictures that you can see are reminders to yourself of your identity. Photos placed where others can see them are claims made to control how others perceive you. Women executives don’t want to be dismissed as “just a mother” and so naturally they wouldn’t display family photos where anyone could see them.

  4. “y81, you could put up family pictures, but pixilate the faces of everybody but yourself.”
    How about buying several new picture frames and putting them on display in your office with the sample photos that they came with.

  5. Their officemates had become their family. Their real family was needy and demanding and complicated.
    Maybe it’s because we only have one child, but the officemates are far needier, demanding, and complicated than my family.

  6. “How about buying several new picture frames and putting them on display in your office with the sample photos that they came with.”
    You might end up with a pic of my family. My husband does stock photography, and we’re often his models.

  7. “But I don’t know if Wendy is a trophy, like my wife.”
    A younger (and rather cute) relative has a t-shirt that says “Trophy Wife.” I’ve mostly seen her wear it with a pony tail to do dirty chores.

  8. To take this in a more serious direction, I have to say a couple of things.
    First, I am skeptical of Hochschild’s research if she only went to one firm. Company cultures vary considerably, not just across firms but across industries, company sizes, even regionally I would argue. And firms essentially self-select for people who will fit the culture. I do not doubt there are companies out there where the employees are fleeing their families. And I would bet you that entire firm skews in that direction. OTOH, there are also companies out there where the norm is to be much more balanced, and where the bitter I-hate-my-wife types don’t get the sympathetic audiences they’re used to … and so they leave.
    Secondly, I agree with Laura that some of this stuff is dated. Women managers today put up family photos all the time. Just as common is the ubiquitous computer screen background of kid pictures.
    And so in sum I’m not sure what to make of Hochschild’s book overall. In the States we do embrace many different types of “centering”: you can center yourself around work, around family, around your religion, around your neighborhood. Given that families are not always healthy, I’ve typically viewed this as a positive. But it’s a little different when the people viewing the family as a negative are the *parents*.

  9. Sorry Harry.
    This may be gender or it may be just me, but I cannot recall what any of my co-workers have on their walls in the way of family photos.

  10. “This may be gender or it may be just me, but I cannot recall what any of my co-workers have on their walls in the way of family photos.”
    Now that you mention it, aren’t framed photographs often something that you get as a gift? Maybe the explanation for the disparity at Hochschild’s company is that the male executives were getting elaborate framed photographs as gifts from wives for Father’s Day/birthdays/etc., while the female executives weren’t getting them from husbands and didn’t have time to deal with family photographs themselves.

  11. I’m not a manager now, but when I was a director of a student support services department in NYC, where IDs were required to get in and out of campus buildings, I kept a photo of my infant daughter in the back of my ID card holder so I could impose them onshow anyone I sawwho asked.

  12. You know, we could each conduct an informal photos survey of managerial offices tomorrow morning…
    I never see the office of anybody who actually manages anything. I have a boss, but he isn’t really a manager in the usual sense. I interact with a bunch of people who are called “managers,” but most of them are junior to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s