Making Work-Life Balance Work . . . at Work


I have written before about the changing complexion of work, and the need to adapt corporate environments to be more “millennial friendly.”   Failing to do so may put you at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent.

Among the issues we have considered is the vexing question of work-life balance.

This topic really came to the forefront with Anne-Marie Slaughters incredible piece in Atlantic Magazine (see Can Women Have it All?).  While Ms. Slaughter discusses the specific challenges related to balancing work and children this spans a much broader set of questions.

With all of us being tethered to our smart phones, and accessible 24-7  for a myriad of work issues, both males and females are impacted.  While most of us don’t mind attending to a few emails or handling a crisis call from time to time  a growing number of workers feel that in return, employers should grant flexibility when they may need to leave early to take the kids to doctor’s appointment or pick them up at school.

With so many dual income households today, and child care duties being shared, this is an issue impacting both male and female workers everywhere.

It seems that more and more progressive organizations are working to adapt their work rules to permit more flexibility.   It is not always as easy as one might think.  Hannah Seligson just published an interesting piece in the New York Times addressing the backlash from coworkers who feel they are the ones being victimized when co workers bail early, sometimes leaving them to clean up after.

One employee interviewed by Seligson put it this way — “Parents are a special class, and they get special treatment.”   She went on to complain that while she was covering for her former colleagues who were attending to child rearing duties, she sometimes sacrificed her own obligation to take care of her ailing grandparents.

This raises two interesting questions:

What does pursuing work-life balance mean to all of us?  There is an interesting equity question.   While many agree that we should make reasonable allowances to working parents with kids who feel it vital that they be a physical presence in their daily lives, what allowances should we offer empty nesters who might like to take off early to spend a weekend with their kids or sandwich generation families who have serious health issues to face with aging parents?

What happens to office productivity?  So if this is a slippery slope, and everyone gets to balance their work and personal life to according to their own preferences, do we all end up like France, where the normal work week is 35 hours with 8 weeks of vacation?  Sure, many feel that the US is a nation of workaholics (which I am not advocating either). But, what is the right balance?

Is it a zero-sum game at work? At a more tactical level this issue can be an intensely personal one.  If someone on your team takes personal time off in the midst of a crucial project, does it regularly put the remaining team members at a disadvantage?  Yes, some things can be made up later, but missing meetings, client appointments, or simply being gone when the “do-do” hits the fan some afternoon, can be a source of growing frustration and resentment for coworkers.

So there are many HR officers working overtime trying to figure out the broader policy questions. We perhaps we need a new set of standards for personal behavior  (a new way of being polite) in the world of increasingly flexible work hours.

So here are some suggestions:

Avoid Justifications.  It doesn’t really matter at work when you feel you have to justify your impending absence.  We get it, your son has a fever and needs to see the doctor.   When you feel you have to make your excuse seem more important than all the rest of ours, we can resent it.   We all have things we could be doing that are potentially important.  It only builds resentment when your reason trumps all others – especially if we suspect that your excuse is exaggerated or fabricated.   The fact that you need the time off should be enough.  If you are a professional, who respects the rest of the team, there should be no reason to explain further.   All of us face situations that we must prioritize over work.    The issue is not the worthiness of it, but the equity.

Focus on the Work.  You need to leave work for some reason.  Fair enough.   Instead of having the conversation about why, what if instead we talked about what’s happening at work right now, what will be the impact on the team if I leave, and what accommodations can be made to insure all the work gets done?  If people see you care about not leaving others in the lurch, my guess is that most people will be more than accommodating.

Resolve at the team level.  I understand the need to have some corporate guidelines and policies – I suppose. But isn’t this really a question to be solved at a work team level?  Every team is different, and so too is every situation.  There may be times when we can afford to be unusually flexible, so long as when there is a crisis and we need  “all hands on deck,” we can count on each other.  It is hard for me to imagine how one set of corporate guidelines can provide the kind of versatility needed.   At Google, they have a great team orientation.   At team meetings they can discuss all sorts of issues related to team performance and behavior norms.   Some people may want to wear their slippers and PJ’s at work, and some may want to bring their dog to work.   At Google, as long as the team agrees they can do almost anything that they collectively feel makes sense, and is consistent with their goals and mission.

Respect your team colleagues (not just your boss).   This goes along with the previous point.   In some work places, we are conditioned to ask our bosses for permission to depart the office.   In my experience, many bosses don’t want a reputation as a curmudgeon, so they may be inclined to say yes, and without consultation with others.  Here again, we need to respect the team and work out the accommodations in a way that is equitable.   If some team members need time off for attending to personal matters, we also need to consider the needs of the ones who never miss a day and are seldom tardy.  Maybe we sometimes should just let them off early some time with the rest of us covering for them once in a while.

I’m sure there are some positions where having this flexibility is very difficult to accommodate (like if you are in the customer service department, and call volumes are not likely to abate when we need time off).  However, allowing each team to define its own norms seems a reasonable approach.   We need to be capable of having an honest conversation, we need to be flexible, and we need to respect the needs of the team and its mission.  Let us use our own creativity to figure out the best ways to flex.

I’d be curious to hear how some of our reader’s organizations approach this question.   Let us know.

Related Resources

When the Work-Life Scales Are Unequal, by Hannah Seligson, NY Times

Motherlode Blog: In Flexible-Work Debates, Parents Have Unique Position 

Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic

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Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership

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