Tag Archives: 21st century workplace

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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Building Your 21st Century Workplace


I have written before about the need to understand the millennial generation (the largest work group today), and making our organizations “millennial friendly” as we compete for the best and brightest talent from this generation.   The reasons should be fairly obvious – There are 80 million millennials and only 76 million boomers in the US today (and I assume the statistics must be comparable in most countries that experienced a post World War II “baby boom.”)  About half of the millennials are already in the workforce, and millions more are arriving each year.  (see The Millennials Speak-Up, The Millennials are Coming and What Workers Want in 2012).

Whether we are ready or not, Gen Y is here and are a force we should be paying attention to.

I know of some very successful companies who have established policies that run strongly in the face of what the research says are the expressed preferences of this important new worker group.   What’s on the list of items you might want to reconsider?

  • Dress codes that many young people find irrelevant and needlessly restrictive
  • Work hours and rules that are inflexible (not allowing for remote workers and forcing people to an arbitrary time schedule)
  • Restricted access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (while at work)
  • Non-compatible technology (not smart-phone friendly)

. . . to mention a few.

The more your organization aligns with “boomer” era values and practices, the more unattractive you will appear to a growing number of candidates.   Sure, the economy is weak now, but as it strengthens over time and you are seeking new hires again – you may leave yourself at a distinct disadvantage.

We have talked enough (I think) about some of the more obvious dos and don’ts in my preceding posts.   So what do you do with your new employees once they are on board?   What are the emerging new realities of the 21st century workplace?

Here are my thoughts on 5 New Rules of the Workplace.  The list, came from a blog by Dan Schwabel, but the explanations are mine – perhaps from a decidedly Boomer perspective.

  1. Everyone should be a free agent.   We all have unique talents that can be applied to a wide variety of problems across the enterprise.   The historical notion based on silos we arbitrarily create and the way we assign costs to different budgets makes less sense.   From a millennial perspective, they want to learn, and grow professionally as well as personally.  If organizational boundaries get in the way, this is a problem.  We must stress to our managers that they cannot be unduly territorial or protective, but looking out instead for the best way to understand what their employees seek, and find the opportunities that make the most sense.   Millennials will deliver great effort when they feel appreciated and cultivated. It is in the best interests of the enterprise to release their talents.
  2. You’re only as good as your last project.   Not many of us appreciate the possibility that we have to keep proving ourselves.   But it is important to create an understanding that YOU will be evaluated (and your value to the organization is) based on how well you face the FUTURE challenges (not the ones already passed).   The world is a changing place and every employee is responsible to adapt to it by learning new skills, technologies and behaviors along the way.   Those who adapt and grow SHOULD be the ones we reward, appreciate and give new opportunities.  If your business is expanding overseas, you’ll need to learn Chinese or Spanish, etc.  If technology changes, stay current! Better still, read and educate yourself enough so that you might actually stay out in front of it.   Learn to draw satisfaction by successfully facing and surmounting new and unexpected challenges.
  3. Work is not confined to 9 to 5. Technology has made the traditional 9-to-5 model obsolete — for all workers, of all generations. (Unless you are marooned on a desert island), no one is ever out of touch or off the clock.   When workers go home, they’re still working because who they are personally and professionally have become one and the same.   For employees, we need to consider be conscious about how we balance our personal and work selves. WE need to manage this, not our boss.   For employers we need to be cognizant of both the benefits and drawbacks of round-the clock connectivity.   Bosses need to be hyper-respectful of their workers and conscious of not taking advantage of them.   This is a main reason why flexible work hours and work venues make so much sense for working millennials. Most of us don’t mind answering an email or taking a call at home, so long as when we need some extra time off to take our kid to the doctor, we have the flexibility to do so.  It all balances out.
  4. Make change or be affected by it.  When I talk with senior executives, a common theme I hear is “I wish my people would take more initiative.  I feel like I have to drive everything.”  Oddly, when you speak to middle managers or lower level employees IN THE SAME COMPANY, they often say they feel unable to take initiative for any number of reasons that seem rational to them.   How can this dichotomy exist?     The less innovation that comes from below forces the execs to drive more from the top, which makes lower employees feel they are not involved or in control of their destinies.  It is a sort of vicious circle.   We need to spend less time listing the reasons why not and more time figuring out how to.   So be willing to take the initiative.  If your boss is threatened by it, or doesn’t appreciate it — you have a bigger problem to solve (finding a boss who is excited about your ability to think and innovate – – see item #5 below).
  5. You are accountable for your own career.  This goes along with item number 2 above.  No matter what assistance your HR department offers with career planning. Shame on you if you do not take responsibility for your own career trajectory!   Start by figuring out what your professional and life goals are.  Think through which aspects relate to your work and start planning.   You can ask your boss to help you get the kind of assignments you feel will stretch you.   You can network with others, looking for areas where you might want to work next.   You can do your own skills gap analysis and take steps to get that degree, training or certification that addresses the holes.  You can ask for a transfer, and you can start a job search outside your current employer.   I have known some people in the auto industry who spent their entire career at one company.  Now at age 50, they are in dead-end jobs with no transferable skills.

Google is one interesting company that has created a formal system to permit pretty amazing agility.   They allow all employees to, at their own discretion, work on any project or activity they feel would benefit the company.  For some they will spend their 20 percent of their time working on a project with another departmental team (if it interests them).  This places a premium on internal networking, communicating your own skill sets to friends and colleagues, and in thinking about what you might be doing above-and-beyond your day job that can enrich both yourself and your organization.

Other Resources

Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Who Would You Rather Hire?, by Dan Schwabel, from TIME Magazine

The Beginning of the End of the 9-to-5 Workday?, by Dan Schwabel, from TIME Magazine

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Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership