The changing face of the American working dad

June 17, 2011, 6:21 PM UTC

Who’s going to pick the kids up

from soccer practice? Or how about when junior is feeling sick and needs to be collected from the nurse’s office? While the answer to these questions would have been obvious years ago, it certainly isn’t today. But have employers actually kept up with this shift?

Take the flexible work policies that many employers have developed over the last few decades, as the flood of women entering the workforce demanded a departure from the standard 9-to-5 schedule, in order to handle children’s emergencies. It turns out that men are five times as likely to work flexibly on an informal basis, rather than adopting a manager-approved flexible work plan, according to a new study of fathers and work by Boston College’s Center for Work and Family.

While in previous generations, it would have been silently assumed that men stake a larger portion of their identity to their careers than women, a recent study from WFD Consulting and WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress found that there are little, if any, differences between men and women on this front, similar to results from Brazil, China, Germany and the United Kingdom.

These trends are representative of a challenge that employers face when attempting to motivate their workers and help them meet family needs. And in a world where an employee’s identity encompasses many diverse responsibilities, no single answer fits every person.

“Organizations tend to put an awful lot of stock around formal policies,” says Brad Harrington, the Boston College center’s executive director. “It’s really the culture of the organization that’s going to dictate whether the fathers are going to be comfortable using policies.”

More than three-quarters of the fathers Harrington surveyed used some kind of flextime and many took advantage of telecommuting (57%) and compressed workweeks (27%) as well. But more than 80% of those who worked from home or shifted their work hours did it on an informal basis. A majority of the fathers who did not take advantage of the flexibility believed that doing so would be frowned upon.

Employers should recognize that an increasing number of fathers are caring directly for their children and want to do even more, but their path to that goal is likely to be different than mothers’. “We haven’t really gotten a well-rounded understanding of what the father’s needs are” in the workplace, Harrington says.

“Fathers want to have more time to be with their children and they aspire to do more at home,” he says. “There is a higher level of awareness amongst fathers that being a breadwinner is an important thing to do but it’s not the most important thing to do in terms of being an effective parent.”

It’s important for firms to understand what motivates their workers, and how big a piece of their identity is tied up in work, says Rachel Kranton, an economics professor at Duke University and co-author of Identity Economics. “If you’re interested in understanding economic decisions, you can’t look at that without understanding a person’s identity,” Kranton says.

Firms can tap into an individual’s connection to work in order to accomplish their broader goals, or fail to do so and end up with an employee who’s likely to sabotage production. Dysfunctional institutions often are offering excellent monetary incentives but neglecting to understand their workers’ identity, she says.

For example, you have David Kurtz, 38, who left his job as a director of production at the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) in order to spend more time with his wife, who also works, and newborn son.

“I completely changed my work environment to suit being able to be home at 6 p.m.,” says Kurtz. “It’s an improvement for our generation. Men and women feel the same way in the workplace; they are struggling with the same issues.”

Now, as co-founder of Flingo, a video technology provider based in Los Angeles, he has the flexibility to have dinner with his family before taking calls or finishing up the work day remotely after 8 p.m. “Rather than having one parent totally identified by the job and one identified by the parenting, we both have found a middle ground.”

This model is a departure from his childhood, when his father never was home at dinnertime. “My father was a physician and that becomes so much a part of your identity that you put it in your name,” he says.

While much of the work identity conversation focuses on parents, it’s worth noting that the global study found men and women having similar views toward work throughout their career life cycles. “It’s not just about fathers. We looked at parents, non-parents, people across different ages and stages. We didn’t pick up any differences,” says Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress. “We’re not seeing a traditionally gendered response.”

Fortunately for employers, people who identify themselves with both work and family turn out to be more productive, more engaged and even healthier. These so-called “dual centric” workers have experience shifting from one role to another and juggling competing priorities — skills that they bring to the job, she says.

“That is really important for HR people to know. People who are unbalanced are not your best worker,” Lingle says. “Everybody who works is juggling to get a life, men as well as women.”