If your company is concerned with providing work-life supports to employees – and it should be, given the gains in engagement and productivity that can ensue, author and executive Tracy Brower says – it must be aware that the grand plans of the executive suite can be derailed by managers down in the ranks.
We know that employees leave companies because of their immediate supervisors. We usually tend to view that tension primarily in the context of work issues: clashing egos and divergent viewpoints on the daily grind. But a rupture can also occur when a boss is unwilling to appreciate how difficult it can sometimes be for an employee to keep pace at both home and work. When coupled with a heavy workload, a family illness, the pressure of raising children, providing elder care, even being an attentive spouse can make it hard to find any time for yourself in the weekly whirl.
"Mid-level leaders can make or break your effort to provide work-life support," Ms. Brower, director of performance environments at office and furniture design firm Herman Miller Inc. and author of Bringing Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work, said in an interview. Generally, managers are given significant discretion in tailoring flexible working conditions for employees, and they act according to their own beliefs about such efforts and their view of the employee.
"Work team leaders usually have the power to determine whether a job is a fit for flexible working, whether the individual is a fit, whether a team can accommodate flexible work, whether an employee's education should be paid for, whether the employee may leave work early to attend classes, whether team members have access to technology, and more," she writes.
But it's rare that leadership development initiatives focus on providing work-life support for employees. That has to change. She said companies must build accountability to ensure that efforts to improve work-life integration are carried out by managers. And they must coach managers throughout the hierarchy about why this is important and how to do it. Making the educational process more complicated is that there should not be any prescription, any uniform formula designed for every employee. Leaders must be flexible, meeting the needs of an individual today – and when that changes, tomorrow.
Leadership development starts with ensuring managers understand the benefits, policies and practices for work-life support – as well as the expectations for their own leadership in this area. Training can come through online and classroom education, as well as group work, in which managers meet with one another each month to share ideas, lessons learned, and challenges.
As well as watching managers throughout the organization, top officials have to be sure that the idea of work-life supports is being embraced within teams, given that people who work together can have a huge impact in these situations. When an employee needs to leave early to pick up a child or someone has to work from home on Thursdays, the team can enthusiastically help or make the individual suffer. "The team needs to hold each other accountable but needs to trust people to come and go, being able to communicate with each other," she said in the interview.
Proximity is a catalyst for relationships, she believes. The more we know and understand each other, the more we are likely to trust each other. This will be harder when a team is spread out. Since team members won't be running into each other in the coffee shop, they have to build in equivalent experiences, being sensitive to the importance of messaging one another or picking up the phone to chew the fat.
She dislikes the term work-life balance because that suggests it's zero-sum, with one element having to lose for the other to gain. Instead, she argues we are seeking work-life integration. Work and life must be part of a connected whole – and companies must support that integration.
She believes companies should take that approach altruistically, but if not, they should be motivated by selfishness because without work-life supports, they will drive down productivity and drive away talent. When employees are properly supported, they will be less frazzled and more engaged in their work, which is vital to corporate success. "Mars is in competition with General Foods in snacks, but in competition with every company on getting talent and keeping talent. It behooves them to support employees properly," she said.
Properly means, she says, a Goldilocks approach – as many work-life supports as necessary but as few as possible. The policies and available benefits should be elegant and simple, not so many that people are confused.
She also urges companies to be alert to a parabolic curve that governs flexibility. Usually it is hardest to offer flexibility to people with the lowest pay and professional status and the people with the highest pay and status. The former – think customer service representatives and cable installers – are chained to their jobs, while the latter must be in the office frequently to lead people and make decisions in the moment.
In the middle are knowledge workers, who can work non-traditional hours because their output is not tied to any specific time – so flexibility for them can be high. Any work-life support program must pay particular attention to serving those two difficult segments.
Her final bit of advice to corporate executives: "Get started. It's hard to be wrong if you try some good things."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter