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Workers Want A Life! Do Managers Care

Company policy alone won't make work/life initiatives a success. Front-line managers hold the ultimate key, and it's HR's job to make sure managers are held accountable for supporting work/life measures.

August 1, 1999
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Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Work/Life Balance
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John and Rachel both work for a large software company in the town of Anywhere, U.S.A. John works as a customer-service rep in the customer-care division, and Rachel works as a project assistant in the accounting department. John passes Rachel’s office each night when he leaves at 5:30, and sees Rachel bent over her desk crunching numbers and nibbling on the lunch she didn’t have the chance to eat earlier. Though both John and Rachel began their workday at the same time, Rachel will put in another two hours before she leaves for the night, a schedule that, according to her manager, "comes with the job."

What’s the difference between John and Rachel—two fictitious characters who’ve played out an all-too-common problem in today’s workplace? John works for a manager who supports the company’s position on work/life balance, and Rachel works for a manager who doesn’t. And if research is accurate, Rachel is more likely to seek employment elsewhere because personal and family life remain a top driver of employee loyalty. As companies recognize this link between work/life balance and employee retention, they’re turning their attention to managers who serve as gatekeepers to work/life programs and holding them accountable for their support in this area.

"The question of real family friendliness often comes down to not only what policies are in place, but whether they’re implemented and if people are allowed to use them. And that often comes down to the manager," says Deborah A. Wilburn, executive editor at Working Mother, the publication responsible for creating positive press over the issue. "The spotlight has now turned to supervisors in our quest to understand these [work/life] issues and to bring about balance in all workers’ lives," Wilburn adds.

Employees in Corporate America scream out in surveys, interviews and elsewhere that work/life balance is not a soft issue. It has direct bottom-line implications that are driven by retention, productivity and on-the-job performance. Clearly, employees regard the ability to balance their personal and work lives as a top priority. Organizations that have good programs have taken only the first step. They must have supervisors who actively support those programs and encourage their employees to use them. And, employees must have equal access to policies—ones that aren’t dependent on the whim of one’s supervisor.

Enterprises that understand the link between work/life balance and business success realize they must convince managers of the importance of what they're doing.

It’s not an easy job for companies to enter this next phase, in which all managers support work/life programs regardless of their own attitudes and biases. Enterprises that understand the direct link between work/life balance and overall business success realize they must convince managers of the importance of what they’re doing, train them to make good on the company’s promise, and create mechanisms for accountability.

As Wilburn puts it, there’s enough research and results linking profitability, lower turnover and a productive workforce to work/life issues that business leaders are starting to get the point. They’re beginning to realize it isn’t enough to have great policies; managers have to be trained to know how to help with balancing personal lives and work constraints, and they need to be held accountable for their success in doing so.

Unlocking the first door: Manager buy-in.
Like any other corporate initiative, you can hold supervisors accountable for achieving performance goals—but first you have to give them the tools for success. Eli Lilly, an Indianapolis-based global pharmaceutical company, ranks as one of the leaders in work/life balance. Programs and training on the area of work/life balance clearly reflect commitment to the issue.

Managers at Eli Lilly begin with a clear understanding of what the company expects: When it comes to supporting work/life programs, they’d better walk the talk. The week-long Supervisor School, which is mandatory for new supervisors within less than 12 months on their job, blends the business case for work/life initiatives with legal requirements, diversity issues and implementation guidelines.

Preparation for the course includes reading the Employee Handbook as well as "The Supervisor’s Survival Guide," a book that describes what programs are available as well as how to implement them in different situations.

"We see these training programs not as perks to the employees, but as tools that both supervisors and employees can use to balance work with family, and make the workforce more productive," says Candi Lange, director of workforce partnering.

Picture a group of six to eight people around a table (with a facilitator), trying to handle a tough scenario. For example, an employee is working the evening shift. He or she comes forward and says, "I have a child in school. Because I work evenings, I can’t see my child except on weekends." Maybe there are many other people who are ahead of this person in line for a day-shift job. What should the manager do?

The business case isn’t lip service. In addition to the Supervisor School, the company offers extensive performance-management training as a way of helping managers focus on results, rather than how much time employees spend in the office. The focus is on what it takes to get the work accomplished.

Training managers on hoe to problem-solve is critically important. However, half the battle continues to be educating managers on the value of work/life programs—not so much the "how to" as the "why to."

"If we focus on the job and putting the right person in the right job, giving them the tools to be effective and the ownership of their job in terms of trust and flexibility when they need it, we’re going to have employees that not only feel more balanced, but also get more work done," says Lange.

Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Company, the Hartford, Connecticut-based money-management and life-insurance firm, embeds work/life issues into the fabric of its culture. Supervisors are trained in 10 three-hour sessions in which work/life issues play a significant role. In this workplace of approximately 3,000 employees, work/life is not a silo unto itself; it’s blended with diversity and team building.

"Work/life is part of how we manage employees; it’s the way we get the work done," says Ann Cowen, vice president of human resources. "To be an effective manager and to have a productive workforce, you really have to look at the diversity among the workforce—their needs, and how these needs can be best met—while still assuring the productivity of the organization. The bottom line to all of this is still productivity."

Training plays a key part in helping managers implement policies. But even more effective, managers role-play with each other to apply the skills they learned in their sessions. When they return to the training, they’re coached, using real-life events, to help them function more effectively in the actual environment.

In the courses for managers, they’re given tools to help them decipher—and then communicate—what works for the business. Employees then discuss how to create a business success while meeting their needs for flexibility.

For example, security guards must supply 24-hour coverage; telephone people must have coverage at both ends of the day as well as throughout the day. Therefore, those groups of employees will have to work together in order to provide complete coverage—and flexibility takes secondary status.

Managers are presented with very tough, real-life issues in the training sessions. For instance, one scenario involved a manager who was having trouble because her unit primarily employed single people who each wanted three-day weekends, 10 weekends a year. Another had a workplace with a preponderance of elderly parents who have different needs than workers with young children. These difficult problems bring up a variety of challenges for managers, and training them on how to problem-solve these situations is critically important. However, half the battle continues to be educating managers on the value of work/life programs—not so much the "how to" as the "why to."

"I think it’s very important to put into our supervisory training that work/life programs don’t result in less productivity, they increase productivity. But managers need to change the way they think about things, and it’s very important that top management supports it," says Cowen.

Opening the Floodgates: Commitment.
Eastman Kodak, based in Rochester, New York, ensures managers’ ability to promote work/life programs by helping them partner with each other to create synergy and support. Like Eli Lilly and Phoenix Home Life Mutual, it offers intensive training that details all of the resources available to employees. They secure the implementation by tying pay to execution of policies.

The company has quite a broad spectrum of flexible work arrangements. "There are just three things that must be in place—otherwise a person can work anywhere, any hours, any schedule," says Ann G.T. Young, Kodak’s director of staffing, diversity and work/life. The three things are:

  1. It cannot adversely affect business operations. For example, manufacturing can’t be on flexible hours because it must be scheduled and focused on operations.
  2. The supervisor must approve the flexible plan.
  3. If the plan goes to another level of review, the manager must approve it.

The supervisors’ course focuses on working with these types of flexible arrangements without having them adversely affect business operations and then, understanding the impact on the work group and on other employees. But the supervisors aren’t alone in the process. The responsibility falls to the employee to make the business case and to convince the supervisor that it can be executed successfully.

Employees consult a 50-plus-page book as a tool to help them create a proposal for their flexible work arrangement. The book lists areas that both worker and supervisor should consider when embarking on this agreement. If the employee still wants to continue, there’s a form in the book that can be used to create the proposal. This proposal is a tool that guides both the employee and supervisor through the questions and potential pitfalls of flexible work arrangements, and into a trial period, at the end of which they’ll assess the plan.

When middle and senior managers at Kodak are appraised, they have a portion of their variable compensation dependent on support for diversity and work/life. In other words, they have a financial incentive to make it work.

Kodak reinforces the company’s commitment to work/life values in its performance measurement system. When middle and senior managers are appraised, a portion of their variable compensation is dependent on support for diversity and work/life. In other words, they have a financial incentive to make it work.

Employees also have the opportunity to evaluate their supervisors in a 360-degree evaluation. The evaluation includes questions on how satisfied the employee is with the supervisor. One area relates specifically to work/life balance and how helpful the supervisor is to the employee’s understanding of what’s available and how to use it.

As employees increasingly turn to employers for effective work/life-balance solutions, as research continues to show that programs supportive to a healthy life create greater productivity, and as managers at all levels of all types of organizations realize that everyone benefits from innovative ways to work, policies will move from only best-practice companies to current practice. Nevertheless, managers will always be the ones who hold the key to work/life success.

Workforce, 1999, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 54-58.

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