Life's Work

Careers and families don't have to be in conflict. A new book by Stewart D Friedman and Jeffrey H Greenhaus explains what goes into a balanced life.

Anyone who has ever taken a laptop to his or her child's soccer game knows there are times when job and family obligations crash head-on. For 30 years, workers and employers have struggled over how - and whether - careers can coexist with children.

For their new book, Work and Family: Allies or Enemies? (Oxford University Press, 2000), authors Stewart D Friedman and Jeffrey H Greenhaus surveyed more than 800 professionals about how their dual roles affected their careers and family lives. They found that men and women who gave work and family equal priority felt most successful at each, but only if they had support from both their employers and their partners at home.

The authors suggest ways that companies, family members and society as a whole can make it easier for employees to have lives outside work, without sacrificing productivity as many employers fear. "All of us can live happier and more balanced lives when each part of life benefits from the other - when enough flexibility, information, acceptance and self-esteem are derived from work and family to help us become involved, competent and happy in other parts of our lives."

We are convinced that work-family integration affords people a greater opportunity to achieve personal goals and lead more satisfying lives. It can promote career success and more satisfying relationships at home. It's a common observation that reductions in role conflict reduce stress for nearly everyone - single men and women, as well as parents in the workforce. All of us can have more satisfying personal lives when work is our ally.

[Work-family integration] is a business concern with bottom-line implications. In a global economy, with heightened competition, employers perhaps more than ever need the advantage of committed employees. That advantage can give the employer an edge in dealing with some of the features of the new economic landscape.

As business professionals increasingly come to expect flexibility [in the workplace], they're sure to seek out those employers who offer it. Employers who fail will experience greater unwanted turnover. Parents, especially, are looking for flexible employers. As one researcher puts it, flexibility "is the major enabler for working parents to participate successfully in the labour force".

There are other benefits. Businesses should view creating a flexible environment for employees as an investment. In this case, the investment can enhance a company's image among current and future employees, not to mention customers, and improve the quality of the workforce now and in the future. Employees will not only give a greater personal commitment to employers who demonstrate a willingness to be flexible, they're likely to find ways to work smarter too.

An Action Agenda

We believe that making allies of work and family requires that choice be available and supported. We also believe that this integration can be achieved only if individuals, employers and society are committed to seeing that happen.

In her book, A Mother's Place: Taking the Debate About Working Mothers Beyond Guilt and Blame (HarperCollins, 1998), Susan Chira puts the importance of choices in perspective. While her book is about mothers, the ideas behind what she says can be applied to all working people - not to mention employers and society as a whole.

Chira argues, as do we, that there needs to be a broader range of discretion available for people. We believe this freedom of choice must be available to all individuals: freedom to establish priorities and find the right mix of commitments to different life domains. It implies that part of clarifying what's important, for those who value harmony between work and family, is to choose an occupation, employer or industry that is supportive of integration. And it implies further that any activity that helps us find supportive organisations is a good thing, be it counselling, mentoring, talking to friends and so on.

Work and Family Can Be Allies

Work creates assets for personal life and vice versa, although sometimes they're different for women and men. Those assets can affect integration between work and family and make the two domains mutually enriching.

Individuals and families should seek new and creative ways to make this integration a reality. Employers should strive to create work environments that promote integration by respecting the whole person and allowing for flexibility. Society, too, has a stake in enhancing opportunities for work-family integration.

The key to making each domain an ally of the other is to utilise partner support and support from co-workers and managers. Integration can't happen on its own; each of us needs some help from people who care about us.

Employers ought to build the concept of partner and co-worker support into formal career development programs, as well as into mentoring initiatives. One way is to help employees focus on their individual life role priorities and the role of social support in achieving integration of work and personal life.

Managers should view their employ -ees' lives beyond work as potential business assets and look for ways to invest in what people do when they're not on the job.

We know of a great example of how such an investment can pay off. One company turned the intense dedication of one of its sales reps to her alma mater into a win-win situation for employer and employee. It seems the sales rep spent much of her free time actively fund-raising for the school and recruiting local high school students. With her permission, her manager worked things out so that she could be assigned as the company's liaison to the school in its recruiting efforts there. In the end, the employer benefited by recognising and supporting the whole person in that employee. The employee benefited as well. Recruitment efforts improved substantially in the hands of this booster for the school and company, and the employee was more committed than ever to her employer.

Create Work Environments That Value Employees as Whole People Companies need to get away from the notion that people who are serious about their families are not serious about their careers. Charles Romeo, the director of employee benefits at ConAgra, puts it well: "When we make our employees choose between work and family, we lose every time." The Johnson Johnson credo gets it right: "We must be mindful of ways to help our employees fulfil their family obligations."

Family-friendly employers make a tremendous contribution in the struggle to make allies of work and family. Those of us - men and women - who feel that our employers support our lives beyond work experience less conflict and more opportunities for integration between work and family. Family-supportive organisations create greater employee commitment and career satisfaction, and everyone wins.

Companies should take an activist approach to this recommendation. Supervisory personnel need training if they are to become business leaders capable of capitalising on the skills people develop outside work. They need to be supportive supervisors who know the company's work-family policies, apply those policies fairly, and believe work-family programs and policies are a legitimate part of the workplace and a means of creating long-term value for the company.

Organisations should train managers in the principles and skills that will help them see that redesign of work processes - experimenting with how goals are achieved - is an opportunity to enhance business results and the personal lives of employees. As these employers set on the road to developing this kind of family-friendliness, they need to ask how work gets done and what about that makes it difficult (or easy) for employees to juggle work and personal life so that neither suffers. These questions must be raised in a safe environment where employees who might acknowledge their difficulties balancing involvement in the two domains aren't concerned that they'll be "branded as less committed or undependable".

Training of the sort we're recommending can help dispel two distortions managers may promulgate. One is that if the boss doesn't have a life, neither should workers. This is a costly error for employers.

The other is that paying one's dues - through face time, for example - equals results. It doesn't.

That last point is especially important because employers have a tendency to measure employees according to how much time they are visibly on the job. Women and men do spend less time at work and more with kids when they work for family-friendly employers. At first blush, it would seem that we're confirming the greatest fears hard-nosed business people have about introducing personal life considerations into the workplace. But we find that workers in family-friendly organisations perform just as well as those in nonsupportive organisations. And they perform as well in less time - they've experimented with how goals are achieved, and now they're working smarter. And they bring greater commitment to the workplace. For forward-thinking CEOs then, there should be little doubt about which is the better choice.

IBM has the right idea. Lou Gerstner, the company's CEO, explains why IBM has become one of the leading employers committed to work-family integration: "I don't want IBMers worried about who's watching their children. I don't want them worried whether they'll be able to leave early to attend their child's first recital or take elderly parents to the doctor." That's from an IBM booklet called "We the people @ IBM".

The booklet is filled with great examples of the many initiatives IBM is supporting that are aimed at fostering integration of work and personal life.

There are a growing number of concrete examples of family-friendliness steps taken by employers, big and small. When Mobil Oil was losing more and more employees who didn't want to relocate, the company implemented placement assistance for spouses and created career development programs at hub locations to minimise geographical relocations. Merck, the pharmaceutical company, is an innovator in work-life initiatives. Early on, the company responded to growing work-family conflict by expanding child-care assistance, flexible work hours and parental leave policies. The company inaugurated lunchtime seminars on family matters and introduced training programs to encourage manager sensitivity to family concerns and awareness of accommodations they can make. It has continued to lead with initiatives in work redesign and a full range of options for flexibility.

Respect Boundaries

The time bind is real, no doubt, but a more subtle and pervasive problem is the psychological interference of work with family and of family with work. This makes it critical that we acquire the skills to manage the boundaries between these two spheres of life.

One way to manage boundaries effectively, to protect them and thus reduce conflict, is to make them less permeable. Work and family roles require different frames of mind for most of us. Managing the boundaries means leaving the work frame at work - and in turn being more psychologically available to our families. It also means learning to be mentally agile, with the ability to move quickly from one frame of mind to the other, particularly for those who work at home. Parents, especially mothers, seem to acquire this skill particularly well. If we don't learn this skill, the family is the likely victim.

In her landmark study, Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents (William Morrow and Company, 1999), Ellen Galinsky found that managing boundaries is important for our children. "Kids said they wanted their parents to come home from work not so wired. They wanted their parents to really be with them when they're at home instead of being there physically but thinking about work."

What to do? One relatively easy step is to create a schedule (one that allows for adjustments) with actual time off from electronic and other contact with work. Add personal life commitments to our calendars, just as we would write down a professional commitment. If we indeed consider those commitments to be of value, we need to give them space in our schedules.

Companies should encourage their managers to respect the fact that employees have lives beyond work - and to respect the boundaries those employees set. When employees feel they are respected as whole people and can take care of their families and other personal life interests when they need to, they're less likely to be distracted at work. In turn, they can make a more focused and productive work effort - not to mention their higher commitment to work and greater career satisfaction. It's all part of recognising and supporting the whole person.

Don't Ignore Issues of Time

At Xerox, a project team was regularly working long hours but still missed a lot of deadlines. And if someone on the team finished early, it was assumed he or she had not been given enough work to do. Managers were constantly interrupting the engineers. To deal with this problem of boundary permeability, the company set up "library hours" - interruption-free hours in the middle of the day. Soon, the team was meeting deadlines on a regular basis, without having to put in extra hours.

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