Recently, there has been a string of news stories about organizations trying, in one way or another, to improve the work-life balance situation for their employees. Many follow a predictable pattern: Companies identify a specific problem (attrition rates are much higher for new mothers, families with two working parents are particularly stressed for time, employees aren’t taking enough time off work, employee work is cutting into personal time) and create or modify programs to tackle that problem. Who could argue against this approach?
Unfortunately for those seeking simple solutions, the fact is that work-life balance means very different things for different people. The new hire who wants time in the early evening for a GRE prep class, the new mother just returned from maternity leave who struggles balancing work time with baby time, the older employee who needs flexibility during the day to take an elderly parent to appointments, the stressed executive who is taking calls from the beach… these are all examples of employees struggling with work-life balance, but they all present unique sets of problems to the employee and their employer.
The problem with narrow, if well-intentioned, responses to broad employee needs like better work-life balance is twofold: They risk satisfying some employees at the expense of others, and they risk convincing management that they’ve adequately addressed a pressing need when they really haven’t. When trade-offs need to be made, organizations risk addressing only the needs of the loudest group, or the one whose problems were most recently in the news.
A better approach is one more organizations are starting to adopt, which focuses on providing the employee with the right amount of flexibility and choice to tailor their own solution to their unique work-life issues. This might take the form of encouraging managers to let employees work remotely, work flexible or non-typical hours, or more easily make arrangements for periods of personal time during working hours. It could take the form of more and more creative cafeteria-style or voluntary benefits, where employees can craft their own benefits package to address their specific situation. In fact, giving employees flexibility is nearly twice as effective as any other company benefit in meeting work-life balance needs.