Work-Life: Is Productivity in the Balance?
Many organizations regard work-life benefits as an investment designed, among other things, to attract and retain talent. How do such benefits affect productivity for the individuals, the company, and society?
This month's column sought to pose a trade-off between improved work-life balance and productivity. In general, many among the large number of respondents rejected the notion. As Brian O'Leary put it, " ... finding a work-life balance will not undermine American productivity or threaten our world competitiveness. It may actually help us find ways to be more productive." Susan Seitel agreed, saying "there are ways to have both and we have proof. The country's dramatically increasing output comes coincidentally at the same time more and more employers are implementing the flexibility that workers not only want but must have if they're going to handle their dual responsibilities." David Lovelace asserts that it is "clear that employees with higher morale will be more productive. An organization that focuses on the importance of employees' lives outside of work is going to ... increase morale." Faisal Shaheen takes the matter one step further by asserting that "If not supported and recharged, households will not be able to add productive talent to the future labor force."
There were a number of suggestions about how to resolve any conflicts between work and life more broadly defined. Joe Violette suggests that at least in the project-oriented environment in which he works, one should "Make your family a part of your work team and you'll create a good work-life balance." Lisa Grainger proposes that before imposing a set of practices, "Ask team members what would work for them, their service area, customers, and work colleagues." Stacy Krauss suggests that "Employers who give employees flexibility win in the longer term due to loyalty and a sense of control... Each day presents different choices, and balance allows employees to choose what the priority of the day must be." Marc Michaelson says he has "been frustrated by the programmatic approach to this issue by employers and providers. Leaders, managers, teams, and individual contributors respond much more proactively to the notion of balance when it is placed in the context of their personal values, interests, and stage of life."
There were a few dissenters to these views. Tom Patterson characterized these in opining that "Most people in an organization ... need ... to feed off the urgency of the organization. It's not possible for all people to feel that urgency with the reduced amount of one-to-one contact that now takes place" under more liberal work-life policies.
It's clear that these issues are not peculiar to the United States. Several Indian respondents noted that the issues are becoming more acute in that country. And James Trantham commented that "I noticed while traveling and working in countries in both Eastern and Western Europe ... that this debate is everywhere."
To what degree has technology changed all of this either for better or worse? As Biplab Das said, "With [new] ... technology, how do you draw the line between 'work' and 'life'? ... I think we need new definitions for [these terms] ...." Do you agree? And what interpretation should we place on the unusually large proportion of anonymous responses to this month's column, many of them somewhat doubtful that progress is occurring on the work-life balance front, in part because of the inherent trade-off between productivity and a "work to live" philosophy? What do you think?
A reader of this column who follows global trends and has lived in both the U.S. and Europe suggests the questions of the month. He writes: "... Natural resources and geopolitical advantages played no small role in the American rise to power, but the bulk of the credit belongs to the American work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit... There has been a recent shift in American attitudes towards the work-life balance... In some ways, America is adopting a European attitude towards labor: 'work to live' instead of 'live to work.' Several years ago I would have absolutely felt this was a good thing. Though I am not decided either way today, I have a better perspective on the issue. I acknowledge the value of spending time with one's family, but I do not discount the overall advantage a society enjoys when its members are at the peak of their productivity."
Clearly, many organizations regard work-life benefits (as a subset of all benefits) as an investment designed, among other things, to attract and retain talent. Such benefits recognize the growing demands on the lives of people, particularly at times when jobs are being expanded to achieve higher productivity—to do more with less. Responses have ranged all the way from flex-time work hours to sabbaticals intended to enable people to tend to extended personal challenges and "recharge their batteries." And of course they include one of the more popular benefits, maternity (and paternity) leave.
The debate centers in part on whether all members of an organization should have access to a similar package of benefits intended to address work-life issues. There are advocates of a cafeteria approach to the matter, one in which individuals can select benefits such as time off, working hours, educational benefits, or even selected assignments from a menu made available to everyone. This is not dissimilar from the cafeteria plan for medical benefits offered by many organizations. Others favor the more traditional approach of clearly prescribed benefits for everyone with a certain amount of seniority. The debate would be more informed if, in many cases, there was a clearer idea of the degree to which these initiatives address real employee needs, how much they cost, and how much quantifiable long-term benefit they create for the firm.
An irony in all of this is that many organizations have made the workplace so much more attractive that they have encouraged employees, often by choice, to spend more rather than less time on the job. At the same time, technology has blurred definitions of the workplace and somewhat fuzzed the dichotomy between work and life. What impacts have these developments had on work-life balance?
Finally, what effects do responses to work-life issues have on productivity at the level of the firm? Do they net out positively or negatively? Does it depend on the nature of the work, the nature of the job, or other factors? If so, should we be more concerned about, and make allowance for, such issues for certain types of jobs and certain people within the organization? Or should a more egalitarian approach be taken to making available opportunities to balance the demands of the job and personal life? And just how will all of this affect national productivity levels? What do you think?