‘Rethinking’ Approaches to Work/Life Balance

There’s been no shortage of studies over the years on the topic of work/life balance and its impact on employee effectiveness, with most suggesting the two are undeniably intertwined.

ThinkstockPhotos-462450933Well, the latest of these studies is the focus of a piece by Susan Dominus titled “Rethinking the Work-Life Equation” in this Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine. In it, Dominus, a staff writer for the magazine, references the latest research by University of Minnesota Professor Phyllis Moen and MIT Professor Erin Kelly, published this month in the American Sociological Review.

As Dominus tells it, the study—Does a Flexibility/Support Organizational Initiative Improve High-Tech Employees’ Well-Being? Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Networkoffers further evidence that employees who are given more control over when and where they work are happier, sleep better and experience less stress than those who aren’t.

Another outcome of the research, Dominus writes: Over a three-year period, employees were less interest in leaving their organizations.

Moen and MIT conducted their research in the technology department of a corporation that chose to remain nameless, dividing half of the employees into a control group that still operated under the company’s usual policy (in which flexibility was at the manager’s discretion) and the other half in an experimental group that were allowed to work where and when they wanted. In the case of the latter, the emphasis was on results, not hours worked.

As Dominus’ story points out, Moen “believes that ‘the mother-may-I approach’ to flexibility — one that relies on manager discretion—holds too many people back from acting on the policy. Instead, she wants to overhaul corporate culture so that flexibility is a living, breathing, vital aspect of work, a default mode rather than a privilege.”

In other words, policy alone isn’t enough for work/life balance to succeed; the corporate culture also needs to transformed.

Besides Moen, the NYTM article also quotes several other experts, including one who emphasizes the need to make any change initiative gender-neutral.

Another source suggests in the piece that “work/life fit” is a better way to describe initiatives than “work/life balance,” because it better “captures how employees are trying to piece the disparate parts of their lives together.” (Dominus notes that both the American Psychological Association and the Society for Human Resource Management have started to use this term.)

Whatever you decide to call it, I think it’s safe to assume employers someday are going to have to figure out the best way to address the issue of employee flexibility in their organizations—and maximize its value. And if we’re to believe what Dominus is suggesting in her story—and what Moen and Kelly are telling us in their research—it may take more than just a policy tweak or two to reap the full rewards of your work/family or work/life efforts.

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