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Rescue Your Work-life Program

June 1, 1997
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
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The work/life field needs a jump-start. Although HR professionals have been designing creative policies and programs for a decade, the programs are still far from an overall success. Too many employees remain wary of using work/life benefits for fear they'll be considered less committed to their jobs. Many senior managers remain suspicious of these work/life programs because they're identified with entitlements. Most company executives feel they no longer can afford such a traditional entitlement approach to benefits.

None of it seems to be working as well as it should. In fact, in 1995, "The Trend Report," published by Minneapolis-based Work and Family Connection, interviewed a sample of national experts and concluded that "the work/life field is stuck."

In 1996, Mill Valley, California-based Artemis Management Consultants, along with a research team from MIT's Sloan School of Management and the New York City-based Work and Family Institute, completed a multi-year collaborative action research project that may offer an answer.

In the early '90s, the Ford Foundation hand-picked our three research groups and charged us with determining how to move the work/life field beyond policies and programs. To conduct our research, we worked with three volunteer companies for three years each: Corning, New York-based Corning Corp.; Stamford, Connecticut-based Xerox Corp.; and Cupertino, California-based Tandem Computers Inc. We have some important findings that all organizations, large and small, can adapt to their unique cultural environments.

We've found that, first and foremost, companies must drop the benefits approach to work/life. Instead, work/life issues must be addressed with a systemic cultural-change focus rather than a benefit approach. If approached this way, these issues become a business imperative.

Addressing work/life issues in a systemic way not only helps the organization meet its financial goals, but it also helps employees enjoy their jobs—and their lives—more. Our systemic approach is a win-win for companies and their staffs. But this new model can't just be plugged in. HR must take two progressive steps.

The project yields important work/life guidelines for all companies.
The type of research our group did is called action research. It's not a stand-back-and-take-notes approach. Instead, our action research meant we worked collaboratively with companies' work groups and divisions to understand their cultures and to conduct experiments-to look at where there were conflicts, problems or concerns around the achievement of work goals as well as the achievement of work/life integration.

We didn't come in as experts telling managers what needed to be done, but as an outside perspective. We had permission to ask the obvious questions or the risky questions about work processes, questions employees wouldn't ask themselves because it might imply they weren't committed to their work. Once the questions were asked and the problems were identified, we could start working on solutions.

Do you offer flexible work arrangements that employees don't use? They might still be trapped in the mindset that working more hours means they're better employees. Re-examining this assumption can fix the problem.

Although the three companies had some different work/life specifics, the problems of each followed a general pattern. Following are some key points that emerged from our multi-year action research project on integrating life and livelihood.

  • If the implementation of work/life strategies is approached as a culture-change process, rather than as an accommodation to employees, it can be the impetus for improving the business as well as the lives of individual employees.
  • If policies and programs are approached as a management tool supporting the culture-change process, rather than as an accommodation, they'll be used more effectively for the benefit of the business and its employees.
  • If all stakeholders can be included in the dialogue of examining and altering traditional assumptions and habitual work processes, the organization can reap similar gains to those achieved by bringing customers and vendors into discussions regarding total quality initiatives. Because every organization is struggling with work/life dilemmas, everyone can benefit from expanding the dialogue. We recommend that employees' families be considered stakeholders along with customers, vendors and strategic business partners.
  • If change is approached as a journey that evolves over time rather than a one-time occurrence, we will all continue to learn how to respond to these complex dilemmas most effectively.

However, one mandate arose as more crucial than the rest: Traditional assumptions and work processes must be examined and altered for the new work/life strategy to be successful. If HR professionals focus only on these two areas, they'll achieve a systemic work/life strategy, and the other above issues will likely fall easily in line.

Step One: Examine traditional assumptions.
Each of us comes to the workplace with his or her own set of assumptions about what makes an ideal worker and what's the most effective way to do work. We've been learning these assumptions since childhood, watching our parents, listening to teachers and receiving messages from the media. These messages give us guidance regarding the appropriate behaviors and belief systems we're to exhibit in the workplace. Some of the traditional assumptions we heard repeatedly during our research were:

  • Time is an indicator of commitment, productivity and results.
  • Part-time workers aren't as committed as full-time staff.
  • Single people have more time to devote to work.
  • Most men have stay-at-home wives.
  • The number of meetings you attend reflects your value to the organization.

We found that these traditional assumptions aren't only counterproductive to achieving work/life integration, they're also counterproductive to achieving the business goals of the organization.

For example, often the person who stays late and comes in on the weekend is considered the most committed and productive employee, and that person is promoted. In essence, the organization is rewarding time rather than results. Thus, the employees who work efficiently and are able to leave work at reasonable hours aren't recognized for their behavior. Staff quickly learn that efficiency won't be rewarded, so everyone who's interested in career mobility soon learns the importance of being at work long hours. When time is the measurement for success, the norms no longer reward results, quality, productivity or efficiency. The organization has created a system that's counterproductive to the attainment of its own goals.

Examining traditional assumptions regarding workand the ideal worker is a key strategy to moving the work/life field forward.

Examining traditional assumptions regarding work and the ideal worker is a key strategy to moving the work/life field forward. Consider, for instance, meetings. By examining the cultural norms around meetings, organizations can find new efficiencies. Are meetings facilitated effectively with an agenda and time frames? Do people question whether the meeting needs to happen at all? Are there more efficient ways of producing the work rather than by meeting? Do people question who really needs to be at a meeting? Do people judge their worth by the number of meetings they attend? If meeting management improves, staff members may be able to get their work done during regular business hours, eliminating the need to stay late to complete their "real" work.

Managers must also pay attention not just to their attitudes regarding work hours, but also to their entire work group's. Do co-workers comment on one another's work styles? For example, in one situation at one of the studied companies, a manager and an employee agreed that the employee could begin work at 7 a.m. and leave by 3 p.m. However, the employee's co-workers made comments to her indicating their belief that she wasn't committed or wasn't effective because she was leaving "early." After a period of time, she determined that it wasn't worth alienating co-workers, and changed her work schedule back to the traditional hours, even though the manager was still supportive of the early schedule. The problem wasn't alleviated until her co-workers understood their mistaken assumptions about the woman's schedule and corrected them.

An important note: Much of change management revolves around the theory that if senior managers set a vision and then support the vision with new behavior, that behavior will trickle down to the rest of the company. Although this strategy is key to the success of cultural change with respect to work/life issues, it's not enough.

We found that everyone—line managers, HR staff and front-line staff—brings his or her own assumptions to the workplace. After senior managers set the tone, interventions must be targeted to all levels of the organization so everyone can examine his or her own assumptions and determine which ones support and which ones hinder the achievement of both business and personal goals. We found that the examination of assumptions was best done in work groups, because members could simultaneously explore those assumptions as they examined their work processes.

Step two: Examine work processes.
A review of work processes is the second important element in this new approach to addressing work/life dilemmas. Just as with traditional assumptions, most people have developed habitual ways of organizing, accomplishing and structuring their work. These habits, however, aren't necessarily the most effective way to achieve either business or personal goals. While reengineering has encouraged managers to examine habitual practices, most reengineering efforts don't integrate people's needs.

Our action research found that by examining work processes through the lens of work/life issues, managers and employees became more creative and more committed to the success of the effort. This collaborative approach integrated the needs of the business and the needs of the people.

For instance, in our research, we worked with a sales and marketing team whose members routinely stayed up all night to complete proposals to prospective customers. Their manager and co-workers routinely rewarded and complimented them for demonstrating their commitment by staying up all night to complete work. Yet the subsequent work of these employees suffered for several days after these all-nighters because they were so tired. In addition, the quality of their work during these sessions was compromised because they weren't as alert or creative at 3 a.m.

After examining their work processes, the group members all realized how counterproductive this habit was for the business as well as their personal lives. They agreed to no longer reward one another for working through the night. The manager began rewarding them instead for working efficiently and producing quality results.

At another one of our researched companies, a call center was experiencing high turnover and low morale. An examination of work processes uncovered that the majority of these workers were single mothers who, because of day-care problems or children's needs, were missing work. The work schedule allowed no flexibility. These employees reorganized into self-managed teams and, with guidelines from their managers, set their hours. The results were gratifying to both customers and employees. Customer satisfaction increased because the phone lines remained open past 4 p.m. Central time, when they formerly shut down. Absenteeism dropped by 30 percent.

Examining cyclical work is another technique to address work/life integration issues. Companies that have finance departments, for instance, can benefit by a simple examination of work scheduling. Because a finance department's work is generally cyclical, at the end of the quarter staff usually work 10-hour days to complete reports on time. At the beginning of the cycle, when there's less work, managers usually reward their staff for their long hours by informally allowing late arrival, early departures or long lunches. Why not formalize the cycle? The staff can work six-hour shifts for the first six weeks of the quarter and 10-hour shifts for the last two weeks of the quarter. This schedule would allow staff members to plan their doctor and dentist appointments, volunteer, spend time with their children, care for elderly relatives, attend classes or go for a hike during the slow period of the cycle. (Of course, this strategy needs to conform to the constraints of labor laws.)

Customizing jobs for the benefit of the business as well as the employees is another strategy to move beyond policies and programs. For instance, most jobs are designed with a discrete number of tasks assigned to them. Start examining the tasks that constitute each job. How can the tasks be realigned? For example, work groups may be able to realign tasks that require uninterrupted, focused time from several jobs to one job. That would allow a person to telecommute a few days a week. The work will be done more efficiently with quiet time at home —and the staff person will be able to meet his or her own personal needs at the same time by saving commute time.

In other situations, tasks could be reconfigured so that part-time or job-share assignments become more realistic. With the move to team-based work processes, realigning job tasks makes perfect sense.

This Ford Foundation-sponsored project has given us all new insights into how business needs and personal needs can be linked for the benefit of both. We've moved work/life issues out of the arena of accommodation and entitlement and into the core part of business strategy. And by making these issues the core part of business strategy, HR professionals can help jump-start the work/life field.

Workforce, June 1997, Vol. 76, No. 7, pp. 84-90.

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