Truth and Myths of Work-Life Balance

Ideally, work/life balance programs support diversity and are effective recruitment and retention tools. Trouble is, many companies don't deliver.

November 28, 2002
A full decade has passed since leading corporations first installedcomprehensive work/life programs designed to draw more talent into the workplaceand help employees focus on the tasks at hand. Despite the time and money pouredinto these programs, few claim unmitigated success, and on an aggregate level,little has changed.

Workplace surveys still register high levels of employee stress stemming fromwork/life conflicts. Large groups of women and minority workers remainunemployed or underemployed because of family responsibilities and bias in theworkplace. And in too many cases, the programs have reached only the workers whoneed them least.

Workforce sat down with HR executives from leading corporations to take acloser look at work/life policies and benefits and their tangible results.The September roundtable discussion, sponsored by The New York Times Job Market,produced both solid responses and notable silences.

The participants, a group of nine HR executives and experts from topcompanies and consultancies, uniformly agree that their companies are committedto promoting work/life balance. Most offer flextime and extensive work/lifebenefits. Many acknowledge difficulty, however, in creating a culture thatsupports these programs, extending flexibility to nonprofessional employees, andbuilding solid tools to measure results.

Culture and communication
    Jennifer Lacy, director of research for The New York Times Job Market,presented the findings of a survey of 300 job-seekers in the New York areaconducted for the New York Times. Seventy-five percent of the respondentsreported that workplace stress had an impact on their decision to look for a newjob. However, "there is a general perception among employees that working longhours is important for career advancement," Lacy says. This notion, and thepay and promotion policies that support it, often undermines attempts to promotework/life balance.

All of the roundtable participants say that corporate culture and the exampleset by top managers can make or break work/life programs. "A culture can bevery subtle," says Joseph Gibbons, a Brooklyn-based consultant in humancapital management at FutureWork Institute, a workforce consultancy. "It mightbe a manager who is permitted to roar at others, but it can also be a feeling ofsubtle competition in the culture—that 28-year-old who is putting in 60 hoursa week and got the promotion. Senior-level modeling of work/life balance may bea key issue here."

Within a company, "culture may vary from department to department," saysMarcia Brumit Kropf, vice president for research and information services atCatalyst, a New York City-based nonprofit research and advisory organization."In one department or location, employees may feel very comfortable usingflexible hours, for example, while at another location in the same company withthe same policy, no one would consider using flexible hours."

At the New York Times, modeling work/life balance at the managerial levelmeets department boundaries. "We have a senior vice president who works afour-day week, so we work with that and try to promote it, but it haslimitations," says Dennis Stern, vice president for human resources. "Thevice president has a small department where there is flexibility in scheduling,but it doesn’t automatically translate to other parts of our business."

Ana Mollinedo, vice president of diversity, communications, and communityaffairs at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc., headquartered in WhitePlains, New York, says their work/life program has support from the top down.The hotel giant employs 110,000 people worldwide. "If you don’t have supportfrom the top, you’re somewhere in the middle trying to push up and spinningyour wheels."

For senior management at Macy’s, a New York City retailer with 30,000employees, "work/life balance was a foreign concept and it was not embracedautomatically," says William Ives, group vice president for benefits,compensation, labor, and employee relations. "Now, as a company, we arebeginning to believe that a satisfying personal life affects an employee’sjob."

Limited flexibility
    Participants from companies with large numbers of professional employees,such as Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Goldman, Sachs & Co., easilyincorporate flextime and flexplace arrangements that help create balance.However, for employers with substantial numbers of administrative, maintenance,or customer-facing employees, flexibility is clearly more problematic.

Starwood offers flexibility for employees at corporate headquarters but oftencannot extend the same consideration to workers at the hotel properties, whereshift work is common. Macy’s faces similar limitations on flexibility foremployees at its stores, where the hours of work are customer-driven.

Arthur Brown, university director of human resources management services,City University of New York, sees the same limits on flextime opportunities forCUNY’s 30,000 employees. "Academia has the image of having a lot of freetime, but there are many more administrative staff than faculty," he says. "Weare also facing a shift to the idea that students are customers. We now oftenhave someone at the registrar’s office and the bursar’s office at 7:00 a.m.because that’s when students want to go there. That makes it difficult tocreate work/life balance programs everyone can use."

Diversity as the driver
    What motivates companies to provide work/life programs, particularly when topmanagement may not readily recognize the problems addressed? "We would like tosay that we have a senior management team with an altruistic view of workforceneeds, but we recognize, as many employers do, that there is a direct line ofsight to our bottom line," says Emmett Seaborn, principal at Towers Perrin inStamford, Connecticut. "Towers Perrin sees work/life as an enabler ofdiversity, and diversity is critical to our existence. We have to have diversityof thought and diversity of connections with our clients, or we becomeirrelevant."

Building a diverse workforce rests on an employer’s ability to attract andretain female and minority employees who may not be able to work withoutflexible scheduling or benefit programs designed to help them meet personalneeds and family responsibilities.

At the New York Times, "diversity certainly motivates work/life programs,"Stern says. "We spent time defining diversity, and one of the important pointswas encouraging a diverse workforce by promoting work/life flexibility." AtGoldman Sachs, work/life benefits are a recruitment tool. "For the company asa whole, work/life balance is a priority because it allows us to be competitiveand attract a diverse slate of candidates," says Michael DesMarais, vicepresident, human capital management, for the New York City-based company, whichhas 20,500 employees worldwide.

Macy’s also associates work/life programs with the need to build diversityin the workforce. "When we speak of diversity, we speak of work/life, and it’salways in the same context," Ives says. "We asked, ‘How do we promote thecompany as an inclusive work environment that respects different thoughts andneeds, and then, how do we meet those needs?’ Diversity and work/life gohand-in-hand."

At Starwood, where more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce consists ofpeople of color from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, "a lot of work/lifeissues are tied to differences in culture," Mollinedo says. "For example,for many Hispanics, parents are dependents. Starwood is sensitive to that.Different work/life issues arise with other cultures. If the internal culture ofthe company is not inclusive, you are less likely to have an understanding ofthe issues that show up in work/life."

Measuring ROI
    How do employers measure the return on their investment in work/lifeprograms, and what metrics do they use to justify programs and budgets? Starwooduses an annual associate-satisfaction survey with questions about all aspects ofthe workplace, including work/life issues. "The survey is detailed andextensive, and it’s successful because employees see that senior managementtakes the results seriously," Mollinedo says.

Macy’s also uses employee-satisfaction surveys that include work/lifequestions, but Ives believes that the experiences of individual employeesprovide additional evidence of the success of the programs. "We have vicepresidents who work four-day workweeks because they want to be home with theirchildren, and we know they would have left the company without thataccommodation. So we have tangible evidence that these programs make adifference on an individual case basis, and we believe that’s enough," Ivessays.

Some companies also use exit interviews to monitor program effectiveness.Information requested from participants after the roundtable, however, revealedthat few of the companies systematically collect and review data on employeeparticipation in work/life programs and the impact of these benefits onunscheduled absences and turnover.

From his vantage point as a consultant in the field, Seaborn offers a moredetailed approach to calculating ROI. "We look at the linkages between threecomponents: the impact of programs on employee behaviors, how these behaviorsdrive customer intent to repurchase, and how the customer intent to repurchasedrives financial results. To maximize ROI, we compare one portfolio of HRprograms with another, including the more quantifiable items such as pay andbenefits, as well as environmental factors such as work/life balance. Therelevant questions are: If we increase our investment, what will be the impacton employee behavior in terms of turnover, engagement, and commitment to theorganization? Then, if we enhance those factors, what will be the customer andbottom-line impact?"

Stalled out
    Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests slow or no growth inwork/life programs in recent years, and the companies at the roundtable reportfew new programs. At Towers Perrin, sabbaticals are under consideration, "butwe are struggling with the impact on our bottom line," Seaborn says. GoldmanSachs has introduced emergency on-site day care for people with children wholearn that school has been canceled or their regular day care is not available."We offer employees an allotted number of days that they can bring their childon site to our licensed facility and staff," DesMarais says. Goldman Sachs,Starwood, and Macy’s have installed programs for employees to do volunteerwork.

When asked about work/life programs that employees have requested butcompanies have not been willing or able to provide, only two participants couldrecall such requests. In both cases, on-site day care was the desired benefit.Mollinedo says that Starwood employees have asked for day care and "we aretalking this through to see if it is feasible given our location and space."At Macy’s, "day care has been a major request for many years, but it’sdifficult to put in because of the liability and costs," Ives says. Macy’soffers a day-care referral program and created an emergency day-care servicefive months ago.

The past decade has produced notable advances in work/life programs. Still,progress may be stalled. Until employers build a supportive corporate cultureacross all departments, the talent pool will remain underutilized and diversitymay be a fragile and tentative achievement. n

Workforce, December 2002, pp. 34-39 -- Subscribe Now!