Work-Life Balance Programs: Challenges and Opportunities

In an op-ed article appearing in The New York Times in August 2015 Weisberg discussed a “new raft of ‘perks’” announced with great fanfare by private equity firms and well-known businesses such as IBM, Facebook and Apple that have been framed as an effort to accommodate the needs of working mothers and women who want to be mothers and maintain their fast-paced career paths.  Working women with newborns now have opportunities to have their companies pay for both their baby and a nanny to tag along on business trips during the first year after the baby is born and companies are also willing to ship home breast milk pumped on a work-related junket.  Companies have also implemented programs for reimbursement of costs incurred by employees who want to freeze their eggs so that they concentrate on their jobs but keep open the option of getting pregnant in the future.

While Weisberg conceded that progress has been made on providing support for working mothers, she pointed out that while most married workers are dual-income couples, a majority of business leaders, about 80% of whom are men, are not significantly involved in providing care for their children and are able to rely on spouses who do not work full-time outside of the house.  Weisberg argued that this situation makes it difficult for male business leaders to understand the multiple roles that most of their employees, particularly women, have to fill it they want to have and support a family and advance and thrive in their careers.  Research showing that giving power to people reduces their ability to appreciate the perspective of others only exacerbates the problem.

Weisberg described several surveys that illustrate the challenges associated with effectively implementing work-life balance policies.  For example, a survey of over 1,000 men and women in various stages of their careers conducted by Bain & Company uncovered “a deeply ingrained ‘ideal worker’ model” in which the most important characteristics for promotion were “maintaining a high profile in the organization, and an unwavering commitment to long hours and constant work.”  As for stubborn adherence to traditional gender roles, while 51% of the respondents in a Pew research survey believed that children were better off if their mother stayed home to care for them, just 8% of the respondents said that children would be better off if their fathers stayed home.  Another study of close to 1,000 male managers found that “men in traditional marriages are more likely to have negative attitudes toward women in the workplace” than men in dual-income marriages and rely on their own personal beliefs and marriage structures when they evaluate work-life policies in the workplace.

The bottom line for Weisberg, a senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute at the time the article was written, was that the perks described above were not enough to achieve the work-life balance eluding many women and men in the workplace and that leaders needed to embrace and publicly practice a new set of behaviors that break down the long-standing ideal worker paradigm and empowers people at all levels of the organizational hierarchy to get their work done effectively, remain on their chosen career paths, and confidently step away from their jobs at a reasonable time without guilt or angst to be meaningfully and fully present for their families.

Many companies have adopted work-life policies that are less dramatic than paying for traveling nannies and storing eggs: flextime, telecommuting and other types of working remotely flexibility, paid leaves for parents of newborns, job switching flexibility and childcare subsidies.  These are certainly positive steps and a global study of management practices and work-life balance practices involving 732 medium-sized manufacturing firms in the US, France, Germany and the UK found that the best managed firms tended to also have the most progressive work-life policies.  While the same study failed to uncover a positive correlation between implementation of such policies and high productivity after adjusting for quality of management, other surveys have provided support for the proposition that businesses that are able to effectively address and management work-life balance issues will see significant increases in productivity among their workers. 

Weisberg is one of many who continue to push for changes in organizational culture so that work-life balance coupled with unfettered access to advancement opportunities is embedded among the values and norms of the organization and its members.  In many cases, adoption of work-life policies is a response to employee requests or an attempt to remediate problems that have already arisen due to challenges that employees have encountered juggling their personal and professional lives.  Rather than being reactive, companies should proactively implement reasonable work-life policies that are responsive to the specific needs of their target human resources pool.  The best way to approach this is for the founders of the company to explicitly focus on the type of experience they want workers with families, both women and men, to have if they choose to come to work for the company.  This means going beyond the usual elements of the employment relationship—salaries, bonuses, insurance benefits, stock options—to consider the full palette of professional and personal needs of the employee. 

Founders should consider that surveys have consistently shown that employees attach great importance to work-life balance, second only to compensation, and that one in five workers would be willing to give up 5% of their salary in exchange for the flexibility to work offsite one or two days a week.  Another important factor to consider is that companies that have embraced work-life balance policies have enjoyed higher levels of employee satisfaction and retention, bringing stability to the workplace and allowing firms to retain valuable employees who have built up firm-specific knowledge and experience that would be difficult and expensive to replace.  Work-life policies are a natural extension of very real values with an organizational culture—a sense of familial connection in the workplace, loyalty and mutual respect and understanding—and thus must and should be nurtured from the day that the company is launched.

Sources and other resources for this article included A. Weisberg, “What Flying Nannies Won’t Fix”, The New York Times (August 24, 2015); N. Bloom, T. Kretschmer and J. Van Reenen, “Work-Life Balance, Management Practices and Productivity” (April 2006); Work-Life Balance Programs Benefit Employers and Employees; and The Society of Human Resource Management, Workplace Flexibility in the 21st Century (2008).  Further information on human resources management is available from the Growth-Oriented Entrepreneurship Project and those interested in receiving regular updates on topics of interest to growth-oriented entrepreneurs are welcome to send a connection request to the author.

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