Erin Reid really knows how to get ahead at work. In fact, it’s her job. The associate professor of human resources and management at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business studies the demands that high-pressure workplaces make on people’s time, and how they respond. Her research is helping employers and employees alike understand how to make work, well, work.
Originally trained as a sociologist, Reid spent months at a major global consultancy interviewing people about how they negotiated the demands of their jobs. She found most workplaces are haunted by the spectre of the so-called “ideal employee”—a perfectly productive worker who employers want and employees struggle to become. “We have this assumption that the ideal employee is someone who [is] totally devoted to their work,” says Reid, who recently returned to the school where she did her undergraduate after four years on the faculty at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “They’re always available; they’re willing to put in overtime. They don’t really have personal responsibilities that infringe on their work.” Of course, that describes a person who doesn’t really exist.
Reid discovered people respond differently to this need to prove themselves in the workplace, depending on their circumstances. Since employers already offer maternity leave, women faced less stigma for taking advantage of programs intended to reduce their workloads—but doing so also derailed their careers. “They would find themselves being ‘mommy-tracked,’” says Reid. Men tended to feel that such programs weren’t available to them, so they invented their own. “What I found was that many men…found a way to get around it by what I call ‘passing,’” says Reid—basically, finding ways to lighten their workloads without appearing to do so. “This was consulting, so the default expectation was that they would travel. They would suddenly develop an interest in a local industry, which meant they could still advance but not travel so much.”
Reid, whose work has been published in Harvard Business Review and covered in the New York Times, is emerging as a leading voice on building more humane workplace cultures. Her advice for conscientious managers looking to put her findings into action is to institute work hours and stick to them. “Try to make norms explicit with your employees: ‘I don’t expect you to work after 4 p.m.—or 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.—and if I happen to send you an email at 10 p.m., I don’t expect you to respond to it until you get into the office the next day.’”
Has studying workplace efficiency affected her own habits? “Oh, totally,” she says with a laugh. “I took my work email off my phone.”