Rethinking the Work-Life Equation

It takes more than just policies to make a workplace truly flexible. The whole office culture has to change.

Phyllis Moen, a sociologist who was widowed when her two children were young, has made a career studying the challenges of working full time while raising a family. She was an early voice calling for the government to provide paid maternity leave and offer benefits for part-time workers, but eventually, when she saw no signs of progress, she began considering instead the ways that corporations could reconfigure work to address the realities of the modern employee, who was more likely than ever to be a single parent or part of a dual-income couple. ‘‘We wanted to do a field experiment at a corporation that reduced its hours,’’ she said, ‘‘but realized nobody would let us do that. We thought they would be more willing to experiment with giving workers more control.’’

Moen, a professor at the University of Minnesota, and Erin Kelly, now a professor of work and organization at M.I.T., ultimately participated along with other colleagues in a large N.I.H.- and C.D.C.-funded research endeavor examining the interplay among work, family and health. In 2005, they started studying a pilot program that Best Buy initiated on its own, which granted workers almost total control of their schedules. More recently, Moen and Kelly set up another study in the technology department of a corporation that has chosen to remain anonymous but that they refer to as TOMO in a paper they published in American Sociological Review this month.

In the TOMO paper, half the employees in the technology department were randomly assigned to a control group, which would continue operating under the company’s usual policy (flexibility given at the manager’s discretion). The other technology employees would participate in what they thought was a new initiative but was, in fact, part of Moen and Kelly’s field experiment. The new policy was both radical and, in concept, simple: Workers in the experimental group were told they could work wherever, and whenever, they chose so long as projects were completed on time and goals were met; the new emphasis would be on results rather than on the number of hours spent in the office. Managers were trained to be supportive of their employees’ personal issues and were formally encouraged to open up about their own priorities outside work — an ill parent, or a child wanting her mom to watch her soccer games. Managers were given iPods that buzzed twice a day to remind them to think about the various ways they could support their employees as they managed their jobs and home lives.

The research found that employees in the experimental group met their goals as reliably as those in the control group, and they were, in short, much happier: They were sleeping better, were healthier and experienced less stress. Other studies examining the same workplace found that the effects even cascaded down to employees’ children, who reported less volatility around their own daily stresses; adolescents saw the quality of their sleep improve. A year out, and then three years out, employees in the experimental group reported less interest in leaving the organization than those in the control group.

By asking managers to acknowledge openly the demands outside work, Moen and Kelly were subverting certain conventions of office culture. For years, an image of professionalism was closely tied, perhaps especially for women, to a strict respect for boundaries — to the presentation of the self, at the office, as someone wholly unencumbered by the messiness of home life. Those boundaries, Moen and Kelly’s work suggested, were possibly counterproductive.

Most companies have already come around to seeing that flexibility is important for recruitment and retention of employees: 63 percent of employers already allow ‘‘some’’ employees to work from home on an occasional basis, according to one major study, up from only 34 percent as recently as 2005. Moen and Kelly’s study saw significant results in a workplace that, in fact, already had a flexibility policy. But Moen believes that ‘‘the mother-may-I approach’’ to flexibility — one that relies on manager discretion — holds too many people back from acting on the policy. Instead, she wants to overhaul corporate culture so that flexibility is a living, breathing, vital aspect of work, a default mode rather than a privilege. In her focus on execution, if not specifically her approach, she is in the company of a host of academics and professionals who are all trying to answer the same question: How do companies that believe in giving their workers more control over their schedules actually make it work?

Moen and others have recognized that the first step in shifting how employers think about work flexibility is changing the language used to characterize why they need it. For years, employees and human-resources professionals spoke of the ubiquitous desire for ‘‘work-family balance.’’ But as Marcee Harris Schwartz, who is in charge of flexibility at the national accounting firm BDO U.S.A., puts it, ‘‘when you think of balance, there’s work on one end of the fulcrum and life on the other, and when one is up the other is down — so it’s like a zero-sum game.” At best, balance is perhaps an unrealistic goal: a state of grace in which all is aligned. ‘‘Balance is something you want but can never have,’’ says Cali Yost, whose specialty is helping businesses implement flexibility strategies. She started referring to ‘‘work-life fit’’ to capture the way workers try to piece the disparate parts of their lives together. (The American Psychological Association and the Society for Human Resource Management have started to use this term as well.)

Credit Illustration by James Graham

The phrase is also not gendered in the way that anything evoking ‘‘family’’ invariably is. Part of changing workplace culture to encourage flexibility, Yost argues, is making it gender-neutral. Flexibility, she says, should be seen not as a perk to work around the inconvenient fact that some people have children but as a way of enhancing the performance (and happiness) of both men and women, parents and the childless alike.

‘‘So much of these issues are about cultural subtlety,’’ says Rachael Ellison, a coach who specializes in helping employees and employers manage leave and the transition back to work. How do the companies reinforce the idea that flexibility is open to all and not reserved for the few, the desperate or the highly privileged? In a nationwide survey, as many as 96 percent of employees said that they have some degree of flexibility, but only 56 percent believed that their company was very supportive of that option. And in a survey the Families and Work Institute conducted last year, 40 percent of respondents said that they agreed that in their work environment, people who asked for time off or for alternative work schedules to address personal or family needs were less likely to get ahead.

In 2008, BDO was one of those organizations that had ‘‘flexibility, but people weren’t using it,’’ Harris Schwartz says. It did not feel normalized within the culture, especially for nonparents. A study the firm conducted early on found that men and single people without children were the people who felt least able to manage their work-life fit, presumably because they felt least entitled to take the leave offered to them.

Partly for recruiting reasons, BDO wanted that to change. Harris Schwartz started working with Yost, and BDO devoted considerable resources to overhauling the culture. BDO started an internal education campaign, involving employees in sessions with senior executives in which they brainstormed about how a flexible workplace could improve the company’s performance. They hung dozens of posters of happy employees working remotely — one was fishing in Oregon, another ballroom dancing. (‘‘Pursuing my passion for dancing restores my energy so I not only feel better, I work better.’’) They posted stories of flexible arrangements on their internal social-media site and encouraged senior managers to address flexibility when they spoke publicly. ‘‘My name is Jack Weisbaum,’’ the company’s then chief executive announced a year into the initiative, to a team of senior managers, ‘‘and I am a flexible worker.’’ He was on the road for work most days of the week, but when he was not, he was running the entire national operation from his home office in Florida.

Early on in the initiative, BDO asked its employees how they perceived that flexibility was viewed at the firm. At the time, only 32 percent of them believed that ‘‘employees who are on a management or leadership track have the option to move off that track and back on it when they are ready.’’ In 2013, five years into the initiative, the number who thought that increased to 66 percent.

Yost and Ellison believe most companies that put in place flexibility and leave initiatives never devote adequate resources to helping employees actually use those policies effectively. Ellison was eager to give credit to a small business in Harrisburg, Pa., that she considered an example of one that was doing it right. WebpageFX is a growing, 100-person start-up that has tried to ease employees’ management of work and their personal lives. A few years ago, the company’s chief executive, William Craig, started thinking about parental leave when his first wave of millennial workers started having children. Craig focused on how his business might use technology to ease their transitions to and from leave. Communication about a given project, for example, was moved from individuals’ email accounts to a shared data platform so that employees returning could immediately catch up. ‘‘It was extremely well choreographed,’’ Ellison said. ‘‘They created a system that would allow people to shuffle work around and share work seamlessly, which is the key.’’

Flexibility was already incorporated into the company’s culture, with explicit guidelines. ‘‘It is possible for family members to leave at 4 each day if they come in at 8 and don’t take any breaks throughout the day,’’ states one policy. ‘‘Extended lunch breaks are fine to take,’’ reads another in the wiki site that serves as the firm’s online handbook. Each employee is automatically granted one hour of flextime a week and can ask for more, so that if he needs an hour (in addition to lunch) to run an errand, or meditate, or see a therapist, he can freely do so and make that time up at whatever point is most convenient. An employee at the company created a program so that the fobs people swiped when they entered and left the building would register on an internal web page, reflecting who was in and out of the office at all times.

‘‘Millennials love transparency,’’ said Craig, who is 37. His approach to flexibility is, in some ways, highly regimented, and in stark contrast to the approach Moen prefers, which is based on the assumption that strict oversight of actual hours undercuts a results-based philosophy. The underlying message of both approaches, however, is the same: This company acknowledges your life outside the office and wants to accommodate it.

Workplace stress often is more accurately described as workplace guilt, an especially corrosive form of distress: It’s that feeling that nags at you as you rush into the office, sweating, knowing that you are already late, or as you slip out for a ‘‘meeting’’ that is, in fact, a much-needed haircut appointment. ‘‘What people told us, over and over again, was that the new policy removed the guilt,’’ said Kelly, Moen’s collaborator in the TOMO study. ‘‘We heard that word a lot.’’

She and her colleagues had talked about tweaking the handbook to make incremental changes allowing for more flexibility — maybe relaxing the start time or streamlining a form required to work from home — but it was not until the company hired a new strategic director, Barb Short, who came from a more flexible work environment, that Adams and her colleagues reimagined how their office could work. The organization was expanding, and the physical space was tight. What if CECP tried a pilot program during which all employees were encouraged to work up to two days a week from home, with managers keeping a close eye on whether they were still reaching goals? No one would feel either privileged or resentful; it would be a blanket policy, seen as good for the company as a whole, not just for individuals. And what if they made it clear to employees, with a written document and in personal conversations, that management assumed they were high performers — and that employees could therefore assume that no one was eyeing the clock, so long as they showed up before 10 most days, worked a full day and completed their assignments?

In December, the company began a pilot program, which explicitly encouraged its employees to undertake some sort of alternative schedule — work two days a week at home, arrive and leave earlier or later, or some combination of both. Overnight, Adams felt liberated from that chronic sense of having failed a little before the day had even started; she was also spared days of grueling commutes. ‘‘I wish we had tested our stress levels before and after we started the pilot,’’ she says. Across the office, teams met goals with less tension and enjoyed more breakfasts with their children, more visits to the gym, more time with aging parents, less time wasted on subways.

Adams is amazed at how easy the transition has been. She is also aware that despite her senior position in a progressive organization, even she did not have the vision — until that moment of institutional growth — to rethink things to the extent that CECP ultimately did. Once change did happen, the rewards were immediate. When Adams told her daughter she would be working from home two days a week, she said, ‘‘There was a lot of cheering in my house.’’

This piece was originally published by The New York Times.

Illustrations by James Graham.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.