Taking work-life balance to the next level
It’s no secret that work-life balance has become a significant issue in the workplace, and that more employers are offering flexible time arrangements and other work-life balance initiatives.
But recently, some employers have gone even further in their quest to make work-life balance a part of the company motto and to tout the importance of downtime. At PriceWaterhouse Cooper, for example, employees who log onto the company’s web system on the weekend are greeted by an unusual pop-up window. “It’s the weekend,” the message says, prompting employees to either log off or save their work in a draft and send it out during the regular workweek rather than inundating others with weekend e-mails.
The company’s intention was to convey that it didn’t expect employees to work on weekends, says Jennifer Allyn, managing director in the Office of Diversity who’s in charge of women’s initiatives at PWC.
Some other employers have begun to flat-out require that employees not work over a set number of hours per week, according to a recent article in Working Mother Magazine.
But are any of these policies counterproductive? For example, when an employee is prompted to log off the system during off-hours, isn’t the employer curbing that worker’s ability to work on her own terms, thereby inhibiting flex-time initiatives? After all, for many people who desire flexibility, compressed or off-hours schedules can be an important tool in meeting the needs of both their families and their employers.
Allyn says the response to PWC’s weekend message has been nothing but positive. “People understand that work can take over,” Allyn says. “We want to make people aware that all of our actions create a culture.”
Not all initiatives will work for every employer, who must ensure that the chosen initiatives will serve employees while meeting the needs of the company. Traditional part-time policies haven’t worked well with some employers, especially those in professional services, says Deborah Epstein Henry, founder and president of Flex-Time Lawyers LLC. Henry assists employers with structuring and implementing work-life balance initiatives. To allow employers to “cherry-pick” initiatives that may work for them, Henry has structured various models, including those based on target hours, annualized minimum hours and job sharing.
Tips for Structuring a Formal Policy
No matter what work-life balance initiatives an employer may choose, it’s essential that the company draft and implement a written policy about flexible time arrangements and other work-life initiatives. Here are some tips about structuring your workplace’s policy.
Make sure the policy is available to every employee and treats everyone as an individual, says Frederick P. Golder, labor and employment attorney and professor at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. “The policy has to apply across the board in order to comply with the law,” Golder says.
Golder also cautions against structuring the policy around child care in general. “I would not want to have a policy that provides a benefit or detriment because of someone’s marital status or family,” he says. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act and its Massachusetts equivalent, employees can take emergency leave for up to 24 hours to care for dependents in an emergency, Golder says.
There are better ways to structure a flex-time policy: on the basis of seniority, for example. Besides any legal implications, offering the policy across the board makes practical sense, especially as the newest generation of workers continues to demand increased flexibility and better work-life balance, Henry points out.
Some employers are choosing to pick their best employees for their programs. At PWC, some work-life balance initiatives are meant to be retention tools only for the highest performers. For instance, the company offers its “Full Circle” program for employees who are highly rated and sponsored by a partner. Through this program, employees may step out of the workforce for dependant care for up to five years yet keep in contact with the firm. Full Circle employees have access to a PWC coach, get invited to firm events, keep up to date with licenses, and have a good-faith guarantee to get their jobs back in the end. Structuring work-life policies around employees’ performance is typical in a professional services environment, Allyn says, and at most employers, all work-life arrangements are subject to management approval.
In any written policy, employers should include information about any days and times that employees are required to work, says Golder. This way, if the company needs coverage during certain times, its needs will be met. Make it clear that while the company will do its best to offer flexibility, certain times and accommodations by the employee are not negotiable, Golder says. Other issues to address in the policy include eligibility; how assignments will be given; compensation, benefits, and bonuses; training; technology; and the appointment of a designated point person to oversee the policy, says Henry.
If your employer doesn’t have a formal policy and you want to lobby for one, Golder says you’ll find strength in numbers. Get together with co-workers who are also seeking better balance and come up with your own written policy to present to management as a group.
For success, a formal policy has to have leadership support and “has to be economically in the employer’s interest to make it work,” says Henry. “If these initiatives are hampering the success of the economic model, they will not have success in the long run.”
Most importantly, management must do more than just prescribe the policy — it must make it clear that employees can take the benefits the policy affords without being penalized. Look for an environment that doesn’t encourage work over family in practice, despite any policies they may have in place. “The key is that the leaders are actually doing those things in conduct,” says Henry.
Ursula Furi-Perry, JD is a nationally published writer, college professor, and mother of two from Haverhill. Her book "50 Legal Careers for Non-Attorneys" will be published by American Bar Association Publishing in 2008.
5 ways to create work-life balance
1. Create a “now I’m home” ritual.
I hear a lot of working moms asking for help making the transition from work to home: once they’re home, they want to be in “home-head,” but they are still thinking about work. Here’s a suggestion. Find a simple ritual to do as soon as you get home, like lighting a candle or putting on a particular music CD. As you light the candle or turn on the CD, say to yourself, “I’m HOME now and I am fully present, HERE. As I see the flame of the candle (or hear the strains of the music), I will be reminded to be here now.”
2. Spend some time every day not rushing.
One of the best ways moms can bring more balance into their home and family life is to become more balanced themselves. One great way to infuse your own consciousness with a little more balance is to give yourself some time every day – even 10 minutes – of not rushing. Whether it’s taking a few minutes to read a novel (instead of reading reports from work) on the subway, or meditating in your car in the parking lot at work before you head home, or having a cup of tea while doing nothing else, or even doing an errand but not rushing through it -– spending some time every day not rushing can change the quality of your whole life. It’s humble but it’s powerful.
3. Keep your focus on the experience you want your family to have, not on the way things look.
Your living room might be cluttered with toys and not fit for photographers from House Beautiful, but who cares? If you and your children are enjoying being together in that cluttered room, you’re onto something that really matters, to you and to your children. It’s experiences that create a childhood and a family life, not sounds bytes or photogenic moments. Go for the experiences. Have fun. Laugh. Enjoy each other. Don’t worry about what people will say or how it will look. Have the courage to do what works for your family, even when it doesn’t align with your expectations. A friend of mine, when her children were young, made spaghetti dinner her official holiday meal because it was easy to prepare and her family liked it. Her family of origin was appalled. Where was the roasted goose? Where were the elaborate side dishes? But my friend was enjoying being out of the kitchen, hanging out with her family. She said to me, “When my children are grown I’ll cook the fancy dinner. Right now, I have better things to do with my time.”
4. Lower a standard in order to honor your real priorities.
I don’t care how optimized your life is already, there is at least one more corner of it where you can lower a standard. Some suggestions:
- Use paper plates.
- For gift wrapping, have your children paint or draw on the inside of opened-up paper shopping bags.
- Hosting a dinner? Make it a pot-luck.
- Don’t shop for gifts. Buy online and have them delivered.
- If you must make holiday cookies, buy ready-made sugar cookie dough at the grocery store and go from there. Better yet, don’t bake this year.
- Let your children help prepare meals in age-appropriate ways. If they aren’t old enough to cut, they can stir. If they’re not old enough to stir, they can take things out of the fridge.
- Get help with housecleaning. If you already have housecleaning help, get more help. There’s at least one high school student in your town who could use a few extra dollars who will fold and put away your laundry once a week. It doesn’t really matter how the towels are folded. What matters is enjoying your children and being accessible to them. Be a real person when you’re home, not the housekeeping drone.
5. Just say no.
When your children are older, you will coach them to resist peer pressure and to say no to this or that. Now is your chance to practice saying no. To any and all pressures from your peers at work and in your community who would have you take on more responsibility than you can accommodate without sacrificing the quality of your family life. Strengthen the boundaries that protect your work-life balance. It’s a precarious and precious thing. Don’t just give it away because you’re asked to serve on a committee and you don’t want to say no to the person who asked you. Think about whether saying yes to the committee will mean saying no to your real priorities. At any given time, you have a finite amount of energy and focus to spend. Be very intentional about how you spend it. And by all means, say yes if you really want to and can afford the expenditure. But know that you always, always, always have choice.
Sharon Teitelbaum, www.stcoach.com is a Master Certified Coach who helps busy people create more balance in their lives. You can buy her book at www.GettingUnstuckWithoutComingUnglued.com.