Experts Project Key Shifts in Work/Life Priorities

“If we think we can change the culture without changing the leaders, we’re smoking something funny.”

Dr. Brad HarringtonDr. Brad Harrington

Experts Project Key Shifts in Work/Life Priorities

Policies balancing work and life are essential but they’re not what matter most in promoting a healthy balance. A recent study by the Boston College Center for Work & Family relegated policies and procedures to third place among expected priorities for work/life practitioners in the years ahead.

Executive director Dr. Brad Harrington keynoted this year’s College and University Work/Family Association (CUWFA) conference in Chapel Hill NC in March by discussing the center’s Work-Life Evolution Study. It explored how major organizations are responding to employees’ needs, identified trends affecting the work/life field and projected its future directions.

Searches using “the F word” (flexibility) helped them identify corporate work/life leaders. Job-sharing, phased employment, flextime and telecommuting are just a few forms of flexibility that help employees dovetail work and other aspects of their lives.

They surveyed academics, practitioners, not-for-profit leaders and founders of the work/life field about key themes and priorities. In summer 2006 they brought together 25 “thought leaders” for a “future search conference” to frame a shared vision. To get out of the box and look at the world five or ten years hence, first they had to identify the changes already in process.

Beyond childcare

Over the past 15 years the work/life field has evolved quickly. Once focused primarily on childcare needs, work/life has bled into all aspects of human resource policy: total rewards, diversity, cultural change, health and wellness, recruitment, talent management and more.

Policies and procedures remain the work/life focus, though they now extend far beyond childcare. Written policies are invaluable. They institutionalize the desired change, instead of relying on an administrator’s whim. They help ensure consistency in benefits across units and across job levels. They provide guidance for managers and employees, offering some protection for vulnerable low-wage workers.

Flexible work/life policies are necessary but not sufficient. Much depends on how they’re used. In practice most people negotiate work/life accommodations case-by-case with their supervisor. Leaders are trying to change that.

Gaps between policy and practice are familiar to many women on campus. It’s hard to find out the rules and harder to guess what biases you’ll trigger by asking. In the corporate world and higher education alike, implementation depends on interpretation and culture.

Today’s shifts in work/life policies and practice are a response to broad societal trends such as:

Aging workforce. It’s no surprise that boomers are aging but some implications have caught employers off guard. In rating current trends for significance, the most votes in their study went to generational diversity. People working side by side may be two generations apart, with very different assumptions. Young people realize that 70% of them are in dual career couples. The wife isn’t necessarily the lower-paid worker who’ll stay home with the kids; often she’s paid more than her husband, changing the dynamics.

Cartoon: “I’ll have someone from my generation get in touch with someone from your generation.”

Widening diversity. Not just a euphemism for adding African Americans to a previously all-white workforce, the term diversity extends to gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. Religious diversity gets especially thorny, from Muslim women’s headgear to witnessing by Christian evangelicals. Then there’s diversity of thought.

Globalization. Employees work across cultures and continents. This means being available 24/7 for conference calls in the middle of the night.

Increasing workload and stress. Overwork is rampant in both academic and corporate settings. Downsizing usually leaves more work per remaining employee.

Out-of-control health expenses. The cost of healthcare rose 50% from 2000 to 2005, much of it paid by employers. If employee stress contributes to rising health costs, easing stress is not a luxury but a financial necessity for management.

Pervasive technology. Ten years ago most employers assumed technology was a good thing. Now they’re discovering the downside. Tools that make us more productive can also compound our stress. Email, cell phones and BlackBerrys increase the expectation that we’re always on-call. “We’ve got to find a way to make technology serve us, not be a slave to its pervasiveness,” he said.

Cartoon: “Hang on a sec. I just took another picture of my ear.”

What will be important?

Given all these trends, where should work/life practitioners focus in the next five to ten years? While policies and procedures have been the goal so far, the Work-Life Evolution Study suggests that should shift. Asked to rank-order possible approaches by priority, participants came up with this ranked list, with number 1 being top priority:

  1. Influence organizational leaders to incorporate work/life into their leadership.
  2. Help people make wise personal work/life decisions.
  3. Address issues through policies and procedures.
  4. Influence social policy, working externally to meet employee needs.

While common in parts of Europe, this approach struck the Americans as a high investment for little payback.

Priority 1: Influence organizational leaders.

“If we think we can change the culture without changing the leaders, we’re smoking something funny,” Harrington quipped. Currently work/life has a branding problem. CEOs see it as a problem of the employee, not the organization. Managers think management is about performance, not personal problems.

To bring change, top leaders need to be committed. They also need to walk the talk as a model to others, going home early or leaving the office for a family occasion. Leaders create a culture in concrete ways that go beyond policies and public statements.

The culture is embedded in:

  • what they ask about and measure;
  • how they respond to incidents and crises;
  • what they model and coach;
  • how they allocate rewards;
  • how they decide who to recruit and promote.

To persuade top leaders to create a supportive work/life culture, work/life practitioners and advocates need to demonstrate that it’s not just a perk. Use data, research and anecdotal evidence to show that it makes financial sense. Lack of childcare nearly lost one university a prime new engineering hire who brought with her $5 million in grants.

Additional ways to make the business case include training managers on how to apply flexibility policies without being accused of favoritism; using surveys and focus groups to demonstrate the effect on retention; featuring pioneers and champions and training all managers to do their own career/life planning.

Priority 2: Help individuals with decisions.

Each situation involves a unique blend of job, personality, family situation and the nature of the challenge or crisis. One size doesn’t fit all. At one company young women were turned off by a panel of older women telling how much they’d given up for the company.

Flexibility means customizing solutions in ways that work for employer and staff alike. Employees should receive support as active participants in their decisions about managing work and life. They should get training, counseling and support to work out a personal response to career challenges such as an ailing child or spouse.

Career management is up to individuals, now more than ever. The implied lifelong contract between institution and employee is gone. Careers last longer today but involve more changes. Few spend their entire career at one university or company. More workers are in dual-career couples; if one moves, often the other must too.

Workers’ needs change over time. Their careers speed up, slow down or change direction. Instead of a path, many careers are more like a lattice or a matrix. Even within comparatively rigid academia, many women enter as a second career, make lateral moves or ascend by nontraditional channels.

Workers define success differently today. Very mobile, they care more about professional satisfaction than their title on the door. Core values include freedom, growth, meaning and integration of work and life. More than a particular job skill, they need the critical meta-competencies of self-knowledge and adaptability.

Helping integrate work and life into this changing environment calls us to transform the culture and empower workers to take charge of their lives. If we can do this on campus, both individuals and the school will be the winners.

Boston College Center for Work & Family:
or 617.552.2844

article written by Sarah Gibbard Cook, PhD

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