"Originally published on Harvard Business Review"
More and more companies are acknowledging the importance of work-life balance, at least as far as official policy goes. The Families and Work Institute’s 2014 National Study of Employers finds that, compared to six years ago when it conducted the same survey, several numbers have moved in the right direction:
Employers have continued to increase their provision of options that allow at least some employees to better manage the times and places in which they work. These include occasional flex place (from 50% to 67%); control over breaks (from 84% to 92%); control over overtime hours (from 27% to 45%) and time off during the workday when important needs arise (from 73% to 82%).
So why doesn’t it feel like we’ve made that much progress? Because, unfortunately, policies aren’t worth much in the absence of supporting culture. Research shows that an organization’s work-life culture – all the unwritten yet well understood norms and expectations about how people are supposed to work, and what it means to be a good employee – has enormous power over behavior. Culture is what really defines how much latitude people have in terms of managing their work and non-work demands, whether or not there’s a flextime policy on the books.
For a striking example, think back a year to the sad story of Moritz Erhardt. He was the 21-year-old investment banking intern who died in London, August 15, 2013, after having worked 72 hours straight at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. (To be clear, the coroner testified that Erhardt suffered an epileptic seizure, and while exhaustion from the 72-hour work marathon might have triggered it, she could not conclude whether this was so.) When the news broke, a director at the bank commented: “We are used to working with people who are ambitious and want to over-perform.” Fellow employees were more candid about the expectations they faced at work, where it was not uncommon to stay till 3 or 4 am. “If you go home at 11 pm, it is said you are ‘giving up’,” said one. “You have no hope of a job offer.”
Investment banking industry: this is your culture speaking. There is no question that Bank of America Merrill Lynch had work-life policies in place. There is also no question that having those policies didn’t change the reality of the organization
How, then, can business leaders start cultivating a healthier work-life culture? The levers at hand are communications and, more important, personal modeling – both by executives at the top and in the management ranks. For instance, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, believes that creating a company culture that encourages people to lead full lives is key to his edge in hiring key leaders and retaining top talent. He proves this point by leaving his office every day at 5:30 p.m. Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, makes sure employees know they can bring their children to work any time they need to. The director of a French electric utility I’ve worked with uses the top 40 managers in his organization as a key work-life pilot group, making sure that they use the work-life policies the company makes available and meet regularly to discuss how they can better support work-life integration.
But as easy and inspiring as it is to cite such examples, it’s surprisingly hard to shift the culture of an existing organization. It takes a high level of consistency in communications, rewards, and executive behaviors over time. To drive all of these in the same, positive direction, I’d suggest you need a work-life vision.
Having a work-life vision means being able to offer an overarching point of view that is compelling to people and provides guidance to their daily behaviors, decisions, and practices. Here’s a work-life vision that might serve you well: The best managers in our organization are the ones who best manage the energy of their teams. Energy is something we can all recognize as a precious resource, which is only valuable in use, yet must not be over-exploited and should not be wasted. In an organization, energy is the essential “human resource” to be channeled – every bit as important as financial resources to success, and often more so.
Share this work-life vision and it gives managers a consistent way to think about situations that require work-life judgment: what they must balance is not the conflicting desires for output (on the employer’s part) and time away from work (on the employee’s part). It’s the two sides of a coin both parties want: good work accomplished today, by burning energy, and good work accomplished tomorrow, by conserving and replenishing energy.
There is already a rich literature having to do with human energy management (including this classic HBR article) – my point here is not to reinvent that wheel. My argument is that reframing work-life balance in terms of energy management can provide the vision that allows you to change culture. It casts the work of leaders in a new way. They are the champions and defenders of workforce energy, responsible for ensuring that employees have the physical, cognitive, and emotional resources to draw on, as well as the sense of purpose, to do the organization’s important work.
I like the energy vision especially because it empowers organizations to deal with what I call the third rail of work-life: workload. Policies from HR will never touch this – indeed, earlier this summer, at the Work and Family Researchers Network Conference, the work-life director from a global corporation spoke for many when she admitted that there were no conversations going on between her group and senior leadership about what level of workload is sustainable for employees.
Overwork is especially hard to fight when the rationale offered is “current business demands.” You know the refrain: “In this market, we’ve all got to work harder.” In other words, work-life integration and well-being are luxuries we can only afford in times of slack resources. There’s a good one-word response to the “business requires working like this” argument, and it technically refers to the waste produced by male bovines. When leaders see work-life as fundamentally about stewardship of human energy, they no longer ask themselves whether business conditions currently favor keeping employees healthy and whole.