Finding Work-Life Balance Between the Margins
The 40-hour work week is dead. Work-life balance is impossible, and our always-on mentality is exploiting our personal lives. We’ve heard this all before and will continue to hear it from executives across industries and the mediums in which we receive our news. It’s no question that employee stress levels are a major problem for organizations, regardless of size. While some look to implement inter-office benefits that appear to help, I often wonder whether we’re looking in the right place at all.
A common complaint of professionals is that there’s not enough time in the day to meet both work and personal responsibilities, resulting in a lopsided work-life balance. We often focus on the efficiency of the typical 9-to-5 work day, but neglect to consider that many professionals tack on long commutes, constant connection to email and time spent catching up on work after hours. Aided by the ubiquity of easy, instant communication technologies, the average work day has gradually crept into our home lives. This is, of course, prevalent in families who have many tasks waiting for them at home -- there are meals to be prepared, car pools to manage, sports and extra curricular schedules to keep.
Looking at this issue further, I notice that these commitments, combined with the responsibilities of work, can lead to lives that feel out of control. Employers need to address these burdens not by seeing how time at work can be more enjoyable, but by identifying the ways that work requirements make life less manageable -- something that can’t be solved by a refrigerator stocked with coconut water or complimentary dry cleaning.
For almost two years now, my team of 35 at MIT Sloan Executive Education has had the option of working remotely at least two days a week as part of our flexible work program. This experiment-turned-policy stemmed from a number of factors -- one being construction occurring on the MIT campus, but also the misconception that employees who took advantage of MIT’s existing flexible work offering were considered to be less invested in the organization.
To effectively execute and measure the benefits of this program, we began with a consensus that most, if not all, of our employees have the ability to fulfill the responsibilities of their roles remotely. That’s not the case for every office, but autonomy and an entrepreneurial spirit are both strong pillars of our office culture. Creating a support infrastructure for flexible work is key, however. In planning for the implementation of this program, we identified key upgrades and adjustments needed for our staff. The most important resources are, naturally, related to inter-office communication. To foster collaboration and maintain productivity, we started to use shared calendars, reliable video chat and telepresence robots. These have not only maintained productivity and collaboration, but in many cases provided a drastic improvement to existing resources.
This did not come without some hesitation from staff members who either enjoy the structure of a 9-to-5 work schedule or value the face-to-face collaboration that can only fully be experienced when colleagues are in the same room together. As a result, we added in some parameters that make working remotely or off-hours viable. We encouraged all meetings to be held between the core hours of 10:30 am and 4:00 pm. And because in-person meetings are also a necessity on occasion, we established a policy that all face-to-face interactions be scheduled on Wednesdays, with exceptions for special cases.
While we anticipated this new program would be of value to our teams, the extremely positive results for the organization were even more pronounced. We now have 100 percent participation from employees and an anonymous survey of our staff reported that 86 percent of employees felt reduced stress levels and 90 percent saw improved support for family/personal life. Additionally, 79 percent have recorded an increase in employee morale and engagement and 62 percent responded that their workload management had improved.
While our program has certainly come with new rules and expectations, it’s clear to me that when you allow your employees to better organize their home lives, they can greatly improve their time at work and vice versa. Many organizations look at ways to give up company time to improve work-life balance, but few look at the time employees give up to the company outside of regular office hours. By eliminating things like commutes to the office, you’re able to give employees back valuable time outside of their normal work requirements. It may seem small at first, but you’ll be surprised what even two days without sitting in rush hour can do to someone's stress level and productivity.
It’s my firm belief that a strong company culture goes beyond what occurs within the confines of the office. No amount of perks within the work day will make employees happy and productive if they’re still burdened by life outside of the company. As senior leaders, it is our duty to make employee’s time within the office fulfilling without masking the stress we put upon them with hollow work perks. Instead of looking inward, it’s important to consider life outside the office walls and recognize that professionals with healthy and happy personal lives come to work with productive, positive attitudes.