If you follow any business publications, recently you’ve seen articles related to office housekeeping, brought to the forefront by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. I appreciate how their opinion piece in The New York Times brought this important issue about how women and men take on office housekeeping in different ways, with the burden often falling to the women. That said, many of the spin off pieces focus more on complaining about the situation or go into how housekeeping already falls disproportionately towards women at home, turning into a rant.
For me, thinking about office housework affects everyone on the job. At Stanford, the majority of faculty are men and the majority of women are staff (with the exception of top leadership, which is predominantly male). That means that in my role, gender is not always played out in the same way, yet the principle of particularly people burdened by housework clearly exists.
What is office housework? I’d describe it as tasks that must get done for the workplace to function and have a healthy environment. Typically, these things are not fun, interesting, challenging and most importantly, they don’t lead to promotions or organizationally visibility. On top of your regularly scheduled programming, they can contribute to emotional exhaustion as well as increase your workload. I’ll share a quick list of examples:
- training and onboarding new hires
- cleaning the fridge or kitchen
- mentoring others
- reviewing colleagues materials or providing feedback
- taking notes and minutes at meetings (as well as white boarding)
- planning office parties
- ordering food for meetings
- committee work
- organizing department retreats
Now some of these responsibilities might actually fall into your job description, particularly if you play an administrative role on staff. Also, certain people in the office actually enjoy doing these things. Yet, once you’re known as someone who loves to show appreciation by planning parties, or perhaps you have excellent handwriting to take notes, or supposed you’re a pro at planning off-site retreats – you may find yourself stuck there. No one else volunteers, you over-volunteer at the expense of other valuable work you could be doing or your co-workers intentionally or unintentionally take advantage of your happy disposition to keep up the good work.
Both individual contributors and managers should examine how office housekeeping plays out in your department and organization. Keeping an eye on these responsibilities helps even out the playing field between your staff and you should track particular repetitive tasks to make sure they are equitably distributed. I’ll offer some strategies to consider to balance the office housekeeping:
- Prioritize your own needs over that of the organization. This seems like a selfish way to start my list, yet owning your career requires a constant balance between you and your work. I’m not suggesting that you don’t offer up your time to take on office housekeeping – I possess the perspective that everyone should pitch in. That said, you can take on some tasks when you have a lesser workload, feel fulfilling or offer you a strategic angle. I’m guilty of taking on several extracurricular committees and serving on interview panels. Yet, I’m deliberate about these commitments, only taking on committees that offer personal value. When I sign up to help interview, it’s only for positions where I offer a unique perspective or plan to work with that person a lot.
- Rotate responsibilities! For regular mundane tasks like notes, planning parties, retreats, ordering food, etc. If they aren’t in someone’s job description, taking on a process to rotate duties easily shares the burden. At the Alumni Association, I’ve seen departments do this in an effective way, whether it’s our executive cabinet with note rotation or Travel/Study in how planning their annual retreat gets assigned to the newbies with a seasoned staff member guiding them on a rotation. If you want to ask for volunteers to find out who’s interested in planning something, have them email you instead of raising their hand in a meeting so that you can see all of the hands raised and ensure the same person isn’t taking on the same task over and over again.
- Say no, nicely or strategically. You can say no more than you think. Sometimes it’s easy enough as directly turning down an offer to help and other times, you could offer up a process suggestion (like rotating) or suggest another person for the job. At times, this could be interpreted as passing the buck, and at other times, you might be offering an opportunity for another person to gain exposure in a new area (particularly for things like committees, mentoring and interviewing)
- Make the housework glamorous. You can’t do this for everything – making coffee is making coffee. Yet, if you’re stuck taking notes or white boarding, you have the unique role of positioning the message and offering strategic next steps. With a retreat, you can turn something regular into a game-changing experience for team or focus on an area important to your work. With training or mentoring colleagues, you can gain allies and build influence across the organization.
- Track what’s happening. I mentioned this above and I’ll say it again for emphasis. Managers and individual contributors need to look at what’s happening and if you see patterns that bother you, bring them up. As a mid-level manager, I get asked to contribute in many, many ways, and if I didn’t keep an eye on my commitments, I can easily find myself in trouble. As a manager of staff, I have an amazing team that steps up a lot. When I see them offering too much time or a perspective that might not demonstrate their expertise or skills, I’m quick to bring this up in our 1-on-1 meetings. It’s important to acknowledge the kind of professional behaviors that help us either gain respect or move up in the organization – for women, and for everyone.
Read more on office housekeeping from these sources:
- Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee, The New York Times (by Sandberg & Grant)
- Women at Work: We’re Doing All the ‘Office Housework,’ Too, Jezebel
- Escaping the Office Housework with Being a “Prima Donna,” Huffington Post
- Sticking women with the office housework, The Washington Post