December 14, 2010

What does that even mean?

We recently conducted our annual employee survey and "work-life balance" was an item that popped up in the open-ended comments section. It got me thinking about the concept and what that even means. I even looked it up on Wikipedia (the ultimate source of all truth and knowledge) and the definition was vague. It means different things to different people.

You can’t approach the work-life balance issue with a "one-size-fits-all" solution. I have one person I work with who starts early in the morning, works straight through lunch, and stays as long as it takes to get their work done (always past 6:00 p.m.). But then this person goes home and totally disconnects at night and over the weekend. Another person really values seeing all of her kid’s sporting events. At times, she may need to leave during "normal" work hours, but she is in constant contact via voicemail and e-mail, she works some on the weekends, and she always gets her work done.

There are a couple of folks who work part-time and/or flextime schedules due to family demands. They may not be physically in the office when I’m in the office, but they are regularly communicating with me and others on work projects well outside the traditional 8 to 5 work day. I’m getting e-mails, updates, and work assignments from them not only when I’m in the office, but also at 8 p.m., 9 p.m., and 10 p.m. at night (and on weekends).

Each of these schedules is very different, but illustrates that the concept of work-life balance means different things to different people. The employer needs to recognize these differences while ensuring the varying work schedules meet the company’s expectations.

It took me a little while to understand and adjust to the various preferred work patterns of the different people I work with, but the flexibility has allowed our company to retain great employees who may have otherwise left. Today, almost a quarter of our staff is part time. That’s very different from when we started the company 20 years ago. Technology has definitely played a role in this. The ability to respond to voicemail and e-mail from mobile devices and to connect from home (or anywhere!) to a company’s network makes this possible. But so does flexibility from the employer standpoint and commitment from the employee.

To be allowed this flexibility, I believe the employee has to earn it through performance in advance of a flex schedule, and re-earn it once they have it. I remember when my kids were younger and I did a lot of coaching. It impacted my office schedule. Sometimes I had two soccer teams going at once, and one spring I had basketball, soccer and little league all overlapping (not sure how I got into that situation!). I really valued that time and opportunity, and I made dang sure all my work was done at or above expectations, so I could continue to have that flexibility. If you have the right people, the company will get back more than it gives in this "trade."

I know this doesn’t work for every job (customer service positions jump to mind) and having the right technology in your company is key. But as we get toward year-end review time, I would encourage you to specifically talk about work-life balance with your supervisor and with those you supervise, and see if some schedule flexibility may help better attain that balance and help your company retain its talent.

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