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The Boston Globe
View from the Cube

For maximum efficiency, call on a mother

By Miranda Daniloff Mancusi, Globe Correspondent, 2/22/04


Illustration/James F. Kraus

In this bumpy economy, companies could enhance their profits by actively recruiting employees from a little-mined source: mothers. More job vacancy notices could say, for example, ''Five years experience required, mothers preferred.''

The skills of a mother could significantly increase her organization's productivity through her talents for assessing priorities, maximizing time, multitasking, and efficiency.

As a mother of one, stepmother of three, I know that mother-employees can quickly assess priorities and make choices. ''You can have milk or juice, but not both,'' I say to my 2-year old son. Employed in university public relations, I might say to my boss: ''You can have a new website or a new newsletter, but not both.'' Known as the ''milk or juice principle,'' this technique can help managers recognize that without additional resources, such as money or manpower, choices must be made.

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Economists have looked at the impact on the country's gross domestic product of the unpaid work of stay-at-home moms. Experts have projected the size of the US economy if moms of all kinds were paid an hourly wage for all that very necessary vacuuming, laundering, care and feeding of children, husbands or elderly parents, that is not counted as part of the nation's economic output.

But it might behoove some astute academic to also quantify the economic impact mother-employees make on the job. If a mother employee can increase her productivity by a third, a company might take on that additional client that they might not have otherwise. If two more mother-employees do the same, hiring that fourth worker might not be necessary.

Moms have perfected efficiency because we must. Through a week of trial and error I found a new way to drive to work. By weaving through side streets, I avoid snarling traffic, cutting 15 minutes off my commute each way. That's half an hour a day - or two and a half hours a week. That translates to more time to ''pat the bunny'' with my son or show my stepdaughter how to beat her older brother at chess.

I apply these new skills at the office: In the time that it once took me to mosey on down to the cafeteria for my coffee and locate something to stir it with, I now have set up two meetings and edited and submitted a professor's op-ed. When I want to catch up on my work reading, I leave the car at home and take the bus. I routinely maximize my time on the job: I drop off the outgoing mail, return a briefing book, and confirm an appointment in one trip down the hall instead of the three I used to take.

Executives searching for ways to maximize time complain about how much is wasted in ineffective meetings. Reams of executive training courses, books, and videos are devoted to the topic. Simple solution: put a mother in charge of the agenda. Mothers hate long, drawn-out meetings. We tend to set our action items quickly, make or facilitate decisions surgically, and then get the heck out. There are things we'd prefer to do rather than listen to the office drone take credit for something someone else did. Personally, I'd rather be baking sand pies in the park or barreling down the slide with my 2-year-old.

Moms know how to find multiple uses for just about everything. The plastic basket that once was just for laundry can also be used as a baby bath ring: water flows in and my son doesn't slip in the tub, and his plastic ducks and dinosaurs stay within reach. To catch up with a girlfriend, I run around the reservoir with the little guy in a jogging stroller pointing out the trees, the water and the dogs. We socialize, exercise, and teach words to my son.

You can send a mom into tough company negotiations as nothing much can phase her. Every mom knows that moment as she begins a critical meeting and realizes the splotch on her just-back-from-the-cleaners suit jacket is - fill in the blank - peanut butter, spit-up, or runny nose gunk. As par for the course, moms don't get easily flustered. Mother-employees can handle ornery constituents and difficult clients with grace. We've managed toddler tantrums with the skill of Middle East peace negotiators and nimbly navigated sibling wars over ''SpongeBob SquarePants'' and ESPN.

Mothers have also invented the art of distraction. When the toddler wants to play in the toilet bowl, I know how to turn his attention to the noise that a wooden spoon makes on the floor. The technique has multiple uses on the job. I'll leave it up to your imagination to figure out what. This is my little secret. You think I want anyone to know how I do this?

For the sake of raising healthy children, I have modified the traditional trajectories of career-building. I have tossed out those ladders with glee. (Afraid of heights, climbing them gave me vertigo, anyway.) I don't have the minutes in the day to attend all those networking breakfasts or routinely work past my normal quitting time. Instead, I bring to the office newly honed professional skills acquired in the motherhood trenches. I am more purposeful, more creative, more flexible, and more committed. And in this networked world there are so many new and creative combinations to build a professional life.

It is true that mother-employees sometimes go a bit loopy from all this organization and efficiency. Every now and then I go to the basement to turn over the laundry and forget why I am there. Or I head out of the office for an appointment and can't remember who I am going to see. I dream of hours stretching into nothingness, of doodling on notepads, of running through summer sprinklers or making winter snow angels, of the simple luxury of being disorganized, but that's another essay to write in the minutes I eke out from being efficient next month.

Miranda Daniloff Mancusi is a communications professional at Harvard University.

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