Achieving Work-Life Balance Between Employer and Employee
Work-life balance is back in the headlines.
Work-life balance was once about employees struggling to juggle family responsibilities. Employers responded by offering flextime schedules. This option helped parents who needed to pick up children from school or get home to cover caregiver shifts. Ultimately, HR teams developed policies for family leave, job sharing, and other accommodations.
Since the pandemic, the topic has taken on new meaning. Work-life balance now encompasses where, when, how, and even why work is done.
The recent tight job market has emboldened employees to dictate the days and hours they want to work. In addition:
- They are mandating whether the work should be done in the office or remotely.
- They want to shorten their workdays and only take on the work they enjoy and find fulfilling.
- They are resisting requests to respond to work communications after hours because they’re overwhelmed by the digital overload of video calls, emails, and chats.
The Surgeon General weighed in on the trend in the 2022 Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being report. He advises employers to set and respect boundaries between time on and off the job.
As a business leader, you want to support your employees both in and outside of work. But market uncertainties mean you are also concerned about productivity and profits. Your company culture is the key to attaining balance for your employees and your business.
The “Where” of Work
The debate over where work gets done is continuing in many companies. Just when you thought you finally decided who is returning to the office and when, your employees probably pushed back. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, major employers, including General Motors, Apple, and Google, have struggled with accommodating worker requests.
Many employers are agreeing to hybrid schedules, which permit employees to work at home a few days per week. Employees have most frequently advocated for working remotely on Mondays and Fridays. This hybrid approach enables time for in-person collaborative activities mid-week. Employees then have some flexibility to work at home, which allows them to catch up on focus work and personal responsibilities.
The majority who worked at home during the pandemic performed their roles successfully without being in the office. Yet many employees who had to return to the office have left their employers for permanently remote positions.
A 2022 Deloitte survey of Gen Z and Millennial workers cited the importance of flexibility in where they worked. Seventy-five percent prefer hybrid or remote work options.
Yet, the adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. Working from home does not necessarily ensure a better work-life balance. The converse can be true. Technology means that employees are always on and available. The laptop in the kitchen means that you’re always in the office.
The “When” of Work
Longer workdays are negatively impacting employee work-life balance. A recent study by Microsoft has found that people are in more meetings than ever. They are working more on weekends and late into the evening. One year into the pandemic, weekly time spent in Teams meetings more than doubled. In addition, the average person sent 42 percent more chats after hours.
Managers added more meetings to enhance communication among in-person and remote teams. Yet this could have the adverse effect of extending the employees’ workday. For example, now many employees are putting in long days to catch up on focus work.
After-hours emails and chats also contribute to employees’ dissatisfaction with their work-life balance. People may not even realize they are sending communications at inopportune times, as the line between work and personal life is blurred. Yet many recipients feel compelled to respond promptly.
Long hours also contribute to mental health issues. The surgeon general’s report cited a study from 2020 of staff who were expected to respond to messages after standard work hours. These employees reported elevated stress and emotional exhaustion.
The Deloitte survey reported that chronic workplace stress is extremely high among Millennials and Gen Zs. More than four in ten of these younger workers said they feel burned out due to the intensity and demands of their work environments. They noted that many colleagues recently left their organizations due to the pressure of their workloads.
And yet the extended workday is not helping productivity. As author Maura Thomas noted in Harvard Business Review,
”The (often unconscious) belief that more work equals more success is difficult to overcome, but the truth is that this is neither beneficial nor sustainable. Long work hours actually decrease both productivity and engagement.”
The “How” of Work
Employees are unhappy about the length of the workday, while managers are feeling pressure for increased output and efficiency. “Management by walking around” provided a comfort level when everyone was working in the office. Of course, having people in the workplace didn’t necessarily mean that they were productive. Yet it gave managers the impression that work was getting done.
Microsoft’s recent survey found a disconnect between managers and employees regarding productivity. A mere 12 percent of managers feel their employees are getting a lot done, while 87 percent of employees believe they are productive.
With the growth of remote work, many managers are developing a “productivity paranoia.” They worry that staff may not be working hard enough. They may not trust that their employees are working diligently at home. As a result, some employers use tracking mechanisms such as monitoring mouse movements to ensure that employees are working on their computers.
But these measures have backfired. Employees feel they are working harder than ever. And they resent their managers’ lack of trust.
An MIT study noted,
“Research has demonstrated that job autonomy is one of the most important predictors of job satisfaction and work motivation and that it positively affects job performance—in part by increasing motivation and in part by permitting employees to use their skills and knowledge of the job to work more efficiently.”
Workers want to have input into how they accomplish their tasks. They oppose excessive supervision and surveillance, especially when working remotely. When employees are trusted to determine the best way to achieve their objectives, productivity soars.
The “Why” of Work
Some of the employee pushback around working hours and productivity may be symptoms of a larger issue: whether they consider the work meaningful. When employees feel engaged and that their work is important, they are more inclined to support the greater company needs.
With the tight job market, employees have been selective about where they work and what they do. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said,
“People are asking themselves what they want out of work. They’re also asking themselves what they’re willing to sacrifice for work, and the fundamental questions are reshaping people’s relationships with the workplace.”
Deloitte found that a good work-life balance for Gen Zs and Millennials includes working for an organization that aligns with their values. For example, younger workers are loyal to employers who share their commitment to sustainability and the environment. In addition, they look for employers who support diversity and inclusion.
Improving Work-Life Balance
The surgeon general’s report summarizes the issue of healthy work-life balance:
“When possible, increased worker control over scope of work, process for accomplishing projects, and scheduling and location (e.g., condensed hours or work weeks and remote or hybrid work arrangements), can help reduce turnover as workers report greater productivity and increased satisfaction with work. Employers must clearly and frequently communicate with workers to address tensions between the flexibility that staff may want and need, alongside organizational needs.”
You can take several actions to help your team members manage their work-life balance while encouraging engagement and productivity. Among them are:
- Encourage staff to express their boundaries - when they need time to rest and recharge
- Urge managers to be aware of and sensitive to employees’ need for time off
- Establish policies to limit digital communication on weekends and outside normal work hours
- Help staff prioritize their workload
- Re-evaluate the need for meetings and who needs to attend them
- Set an example by prioritizing your work-life boundaries.
Culture is the Key
But policies and practices can be short-lived. Think instead about your company culture and the behaviors it encourages. Are the following behaviors emphasized?
Helping your employees maintain a healthy work-life balance starts with them being comfortable sharing their needs. Your staff should let you know where their boundaries are and what flexibility they require. They must convey when they need time to rest and recharge their batteries.
This will only happen in an environment of trust, where employees know they can speak honestly without fear of reprisal. Workers need to know that their leaders are listening to understand them, not simply listening to respond.
When an employee is granted time off or flexible hours, management must honor that commitment. If a prior commitment becomes difficult to keep, the manager and employee need to agree upon a new arrangement.
Employees must see their managers set and respect clear boundaries without penalty.
But the commitment is not just one-way.
Employees should be accountable for their work – wherever and whenever it is performed. And their managers need to hold them accountable. Productivity and excellence should not suffer in balancing work and personal life obligations. And this accountability is foundational to developing trust in the workplace.
Need Help with Your Culture?
Choosing the behaviors you expect from your staff, and reinforcing them, is the key to high-performing company culture. The CultureWise website has resources to help with culture implementation, including blogs, webinars, and podcasts. Enjoy a complimentary subscription to our weekly newsletter on culture thought leadership, Culture Matters. Or schedule a call with a CultureWise consultant to learn more about what a culture initiative could do for your company.