Work-life balance discussions originated during the 1960s and 1970s and pertained mostly to working mothers’ meeting the demands of family and work. During the 1980s, the realization that meeting a work-life balance is important (for all, not just working mothers) resulted in companies such as IBM implementing flextime and home-based work solutions. The growing awareness of the work-life balance problem continued into the 1990s, when policies were developed and implemented but not acted upon by managers and employees, according to Jim Bird in Employment Relations Today. 1 Today, work-life balance is considered an important topic, so much so that the World at Work Society offers special certifications in this area. The World at Work certification programs focus on creation of successful programs to attract, retain, and motivate employees.
Karol Rose, author of Work Life Effectiveness, 2 says that most companies look at a systems approach of work-life balance, instead of a systems and individual approach. The systems approach to work-life balance includes policies and procedures that allow people flexibility, such as telecommuting and flextime options.
According to Rose, looking at the individual differences is equally as important as the systems approach. Brad Harrington, the director of Boston College’s Center for Work and Family, stresses this issue: “Work-life balance comes down, not to an organizational strategy, but to an individual strategy.” For example, a single parent has a different work-life balance need than someone without children. In other words, as HR professionals, we can create work-life balance systems, but we should also look at individual approaches. For example, at Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI), 3 they use the systems approach perspective and offer paid time off and sabbaticals, but their employee assistance program also offers access to services, referrals, and free consulting for the individual to find his or her perfect work-life balance. For this, REI receives a number nine ranking on Fortune’s list of best companies to work for in the area of work-life balance.
The company culture can contribute greatly to work-life balance. Some organizations have a culture of flexibility that fares well for workers who do not want to feel tethered to an office, while some workers prefer to be in the office where more informal socializing can occur. While some companies promote work-life balance on paper, upper management needs to let employees know it is OK to take advantage of the alternatives to create a positive work-life balance. For example, companies place different levels of value on work-life options such as telecommuting. An organization may have a telecommuting option, but the employees must feel it is OK to use these options. Even in a company that has work-life balance systems, a manager who sends e-mails at 10 p.m. on Saturday night could be sending the wrong message to employees about the expectations, creating an environment in which work-life balance is not practiced in reality. O’Neill, a surf gear company in California, sends a strong message to its employees by offering half-day Fridays during the summer, 4 so employees can get a head start on the weekend.
Jim Bird, in his work-life balance article in Employment Relations Today, suggests implementing a work-life balance training program that is dual purpose (can serve both personal interests and professional development). In other words, implement trainings in which the employee can develop both personal skills and interests that can translate into higher productivity at work.
Besides the training program, Bird suggests creating a monthly work-life newsletter as an educational tool to show the company’s commitment to work-life balance. The newsletter can include interviews from respected employees and tips on how to create a work-life balance.
Finally, training managers on the importance of work-life balance and how to create a culture that embraces this is a key way to use work-life balance as a retention strategy.