Congress Perpetuates Outdated “Face Time” Culture

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Congress Perpetuates Outdated “Face Time” Culture

The headline in the New York Times over the weekend (10/27/07) screamed, “Democrats Plan a Shorter Workweek,” but are they really? It depends upon whether you analyze last week’s announcement by the House leadership through the traditional presence=performance “face time” lens, or a more progressive “it’s about working differently, not less,” flexibility lens.

Last week the Democratic house leadership announced that “the House would not be in session on Fridays, except in June for work on appropriations bills.” The intention, according to Representative Steny Hoyer (D) was to, “have more time for members to work in their districts and be close to their families.” He conceded that the previous 10-months of “Marathon days and weeks in Washington…had taken a toll, especially on lawmakers who must travel long distances home and who have small children.”

Immediately the response from the other side of the aisle was, “Changing the schedule was an example of Democrats breaking promises, ‘They said five-day weeks.’”

What Hoyer should have said was, “We are not going to hold votes on Fridays, so that representatives can work remotely from their offices in their districts,” but that would have required using 21st Century language. Our leaders seem to only have a Industrial Age vocabulary.

The Democratic leadership could be blamed for making the presence in Washington an indicator of performance when, according to the article they said “they would put Congress back to work, promising an “end to the two-day workweek.” Regardless, the rhetoric reflects our culture’s ingrained bias that an individual’s presence in a particular office or location is the only valid indicator that work is being done.

Bottom line: Contrary to the headline, the leaderships’ announcement is not about working less, it’s about working differently.

Let’s look at the job of a Representative. A big part does involve interacting with local constituents which is hard to do from Washington. And, while they can’t physically vote on the floor of Congress working remotely, they can conduct every other aspect of their job. In fact, contrary to the headline, Representative Hoyer was not saying he wants every member of Congress to take Friday off. No, he said, the House would not be in session so there would be “more time for members to work in their districts,” and yes, be able to see their families because they are working locally.

Which brings me back to the headline, “Democrats Plan a Shorter Workweek.” Why? Because the media continues to report issues of work and life through the old “presence=performance” lens. My hope is someday that headline would read, “Congress Embraces Flexible Work Culture!” Here’s to hoping…