Cultural Change Is the Work-Life Solution

October 1, 1998
Work/life strategies have not only hit the corporate mainstream—they’ve become drivers toward competitive advantage.

The ever-changing values of tomorrow’s workforce have created unprecedented demands for flexible, diverse benefits and policies. To be leaders and employers of choice, organizations are increasingly focusing on managing human capital.

A study conducted in April 1997 by Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Illinois, indicates that over the past five years, there have been increases in every category of work/life initiatives. Of the 1,050 employers polled in 1996, 68 percent offered flexible scheduling, 86 percent offered child care, 30 percent provided elder care, 23 percent had adoption benefits and 85 percent made employment assistance programs available.

The 1996 "Mercer Work/Life & Diversity Initiatives Benchmarking Survey" conducted by New York City-based William M. Mercer revealed the same trends. Of 800 employers questioned, an astounding 94 percent instituted flexible-scheduling policies. Particularly, 79 percent had written policies allowing part-time employment and another 2 percent were considering them. Thirty-eight percent offered flex-time and another 11 percent were considering or developing programs; 34 percent had compressed work weeks, while another 8 percent were considering or developing policies; and 26 percent allowed job sharing, with another 10 percent considering or developing programs.

Given this trend, the critical question that emerges is this: Is the rise in work/life programs seen in theory and in practice? According to Business Week’s 1996 research of balancing of work and family, the answer was "no." While 48 percent of the 8,000 employee respondents to Business Week’s "Balancing Work and Family" survey said they could "have a good family life and still get ahead" in their companies, 60 percent reported that management did not, or only somewhat did, take people into account when making decisions. Although many companies offer benefits, this disregard from management is felt because the underlying cultural issues still aren’t well addressed.

Business Week’s 1997 survey on the same topic indicated that things began to change—at least at the top. At companies that ranked highest overall, it was reported that family-friendliness is ingrained in both culture and business strategy.

However, beyond the top tier, employees indicated that work and family strategies aren’t working well. Lacking true business grounding and often at odds with corporate culture, family-friendly programs are viewed by employees as add-ons and concessions primarily targeted at women with kids—even though that group accounted for less than a quarter of survey respondents.

To truly impact the work and personal lives of employees, organizations must stop viewing work/life benefits as an accommodation. Rather, they should look at the benefits as strategic business initiatives that drive culture change throughout the organization. A work/life strategy will be successful only when it’s embedded in the culture of the company—it must be integrated into work practices and must be supported by a commitment from top management and training for managers.

Creating a work/life strategy is a journey.
Designing and implementing an effective work/life strategy can’t happen overnight. The change must be approached as a journey that evolves over time, instead of a one-time occurrence. Adopting this vision will enable employers to learn how best to respond to the dilemmas raised by an increasingly diverse workforce. Before embarking on the journey, keep in mind a few key points about strategy development:

  • It must be achieved in stages
  • It involves long-range planning
  • It requires a change in attitudes and management style
  • It must relate to corporate goals
  • It must be fully integrated with the other aspects of the organization’s human resources programs.

The first step of creating a work/life strategy is to gain commitment from senior management and then cascade that commitment throughout the management of the company. Awareness and acceptance of family issues at the top is a good starting point—and companies seem to understand this concept. Fifty-four percent of respondents in the Business Week survey reported that top management demonstrates support for family balance.

But the definition of "support" remains vague. Most often support from management is seen as lip service that doesn’t translate into action. Yet still, the question remains: How can you make sure that these executives will act on their word?

One way for senior-level managers to demonstrate their support for the programs is to solicit input from employees at all levels. A 1996 Ford Foundation Study Relinking Life and Work found that everyone—line managers, HR staff and front-line staff—brings assumptions to the workplace.

Organizations must stop viewing work/life benefits as an accommodation. Rather, they should look at the benefits as strategic business initiatives.

After senior management sets the tone for open commentary, putting work/life concerns on the table as legitimate issues for discussion turns out to be liberating for all who are involved. Employees can examine their own assumptions, and determine which ones support and which ones impede the achievement of both personal and business goals.

Without visible support from the top, work/family efforts can quickly be crippled. CEOs need to commit publicly to supporting the initiatives. Those who do this best are the ones who recite personal values and experiences, like David Olson of Patagonia, Randall Tobias of Eli Lilly, Lew Platt of Hewlett-Packard, or Kurt Landgraf of DuPont. CEOs must also require direct reports to show they are acting and managing sensitively. Those who don’t understand this sort of commitment are out.

Look at work/life issues as business issues.
A sure sign that upper managers support work/life initiatives is when they draw the link between the programs and the overall business strategy. But, to a large extent, employers still see work/life benefits as an accommodation, rather than as a strategic business initiative.

However, the Ford Foundation study points out, "Addressing work/family concerns as legitimate and systematic issues for corporations can lead to innovation in work practices that not only help employees, but also improve the bottom-line results for the company."

Gain commitment from senior management and then cascade that commitment throughout the management of the company.

Despite potential benefits to the company, the study found that making the link between work and work/life issues is difficult. Significant organizational barriers—such as beliefs about what makes a good worker, how productivity is achieved, and how rewards are distributed—strain this connection. In a large percentage of companies, the work/life benefits are designed and administered by HR, but are implemented by line managers. Delineating responsibility along these lines reinforces the belief that business issues are separate from employees’ personal lives.

To solidify this link between work and work/life, and to gain support for the program, a critical element of implementing a work/life strategy is to objectively highlight the impact that creating a people-friendly work environment has on the bottom line. Assessing the impact can take a number of directions:

1. Effect on recruitment and retention: Work/life initiatives play a critical role in an organization’s recruitment and retention strategies. But placing a quantitative value on their effect will be instrumental in giving credibility to the program by linking its existence directly to the company’s bottom line and streamlining it into the overall business strategy. Issues to look at include:

  • Cost per hire—a decrease in costs per hire signifies a decrease in recruiting costs, training time and so on.
  • Customer defections—a decrease in the number of customers leaving you and going to your competition means an increase in customer satisfaction. Keep in mind that customer defections can be a result of many factors, including lack of resources, errors or inability to commit to promises. You need to delve into why customers are going elsewhere so that these issues can be remedied.
  • Lost intellectual capital—turnover rates in excess of 10 percent and low re-tention rates indicate the organization isn’t properly managing needed knowledge, skills and behavior.

2. Impact on productivity: It’s also advantageous to look at the impact of work/life programs on the productivity of the workforce. But what’s the payoff for helping a parent put in a productive day at work, knowing an ill child is well cared for? Or how do you assess the benefit of providing an employee with a referral to a plumber if a pipe suddenly bursts? Again, to take a more quantitative look, address issues such as:

  • Payback—measure the payback of various programs in terms of dollars, such as dependent-care programs, employee time saved, or tardiness. A dollar value can be assigned to improved employee morale and public relations.
  • Return on investment—an increase in the return on investment indicates that the program is making a positive contribution to the company’s bottom line.

Work/life must become part of the culture.
Commitment from managers and employees alike comes from a culture in which embracing work/life balance is pervasive and consistent. The Ford Foundation study confirmed that the organizational culture, plus the image of what it means to be an ideal employee, gets in the way of using the benefits that are offered.

Programs like part-time work, flex-time and telecommuting are there, but the culture often identifies those that take advantage of them as less committed to work. If a person indicates a desire for a part-time job, he or she is seen as no longer interested in professional growth and opportunity.

There are a number of ways to weave a work/life perspective into a corporate culture. At Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola Inc., a work/life vision statement is reinforced by regular training for supervisors and seminars for the front-line staff, and by 50 professionals responsible for guiding the direction and implementation of these programs worldwide. It’s translated into benefits offered to workers companywide that reflect the company’s values and business goals.

Newark, Delaware-based credit-card issuer MBNA Corp.’s universal top-down culture reinforces the notion of respect for employees at literally every turn. Execs and rank-and-file workers mutually carry, and quote from, a laminated card printed with the company’s core precepts, reading "MBNA is a company of people who expect to be treated fairly."

In last year’s Business Week survey of work and family strategies, 78 percent of MBNA employees indicated they didn’t have to sacrifice career progress for life balance. The reason is in part because they see the company’s top officers confronting family issues of their own. Vice-Chairman David W. Spartin, for example, sends his children to the same onsite day-care facility as do other employees.

Companies that truly entrench the initiatives into the corporate culture integrate family support into the business itself. At Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett Packard Co., CEO Lew Platt demands that every business unit identify work-family issues and propose action plans as part of their annual business reviews. So, when HP’s printer group, facing higher consumer demand, had to increase the number of shifts its manufacturing department worked, it also investigated options for round-the-clock child care. Financial managers won approval of a plan to get work done more efficiently by rescheduling activities causing peak-period bottlenecks, avoiding staffing gaps and providing technology to allow work from home.

Platt says, "I sincerely believe employers who find the answers to the questions [surrounding work/life] are going to be leading employers in the future. These leaders will attract and retain the very best people in the future. This is the competitive advantage."

Putting it all together.
The journey to creating a people-friendly work environment will be filled with twists and turns. As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse and organizations strive to be employers of choice, the work/life strategy will take center stage. But even the most progressive approach will fail without commitment from management and a culture that supports a people-friendly environment. These two factors form the basis of any work/life strategy.

"In the work/life equation, attitude is far more important than any particular policy or program," says Paul Allaire, Xerox chairman and CEO in his address to the 1997 CEO Summit on Relinking Life and Work. "We must nurture an attitude, a corporate culture, that respects differences among people, an attitude that assumes people want to do the right thing, an attitude that values empowerment so people can get the job done."

Workforce, October 1998, Vol. 77, No. 10, pp. 70-73.