How Can We Design Flexibility to Meet Different Employees’ Work-Life Balance Needs?

How Can We Design Flexibility to Meet Different Employees’ Work-Life Balance Needs?

In a meta-analysis of recent studies on flexible work policies, professors Ellen Ernst Kossek and Brenda A. Lautsch looked at whether these programs had consistent benefits for all types of workers: e.g., hourly or salaried, managerial or professional, and high- or low-income. Discussing their findings at the Harvard Business Review, Kossek and Lautsch register their dismay that in most of these studies, these distinctions weren’t even explored. “Despite the many studies on the topic,” they write, “it is rare for scholars to consider occupational differences across workers in the need for, and experience of, work-life flexibility.”

That’s a problem, the authors underscore, because employees in different roles and circumstances diverge significantly in terms of access to flexibility and other work-life balance programs, with varying consequences for their quality of life and work:

What exactly do we know about how kinds of work-life flexibility benefit employees in different jobs the most? First, not every employee faces the same work-life challenges, has access to the same types of flexibility, or experiences outcomes from them in the same way. For example, retail, food, and other workers in hourly jobs that pay at or close to the minimum wage often struggle to get sufficient predictable (and sometimes enough) work hours to care for their families. They would benefit from being able to control their work hours through flex time and having greater control over schedules and time off, as well as the ramping up of hours when it fits their lives. Yet these are the workers who rarely have access to control over when they work.

In addition, access to other work-life flexibility practices that affect the ability to take time off and the continuity of work, like paid sick and parental leaves, is critical to these hourly workers. It is also largely unavailable to them.

These authors’ point about how employees differ in their work-life challenges and the kinds of benefits they need resonates with something we’ve observed in our research at CEB, now Gartner, over the past several years and that is coming into ever greater focus in our ongoing work: Work-life balance is a broad category of need, for which no HR department can possibly design a one-size-fits-all solution.

Last week, we hosted Genentech’s Head of People Analytics Chase Rowbotham for a webinar. One of the projects he described was an analysis his team did to understand the effects of commute times on employees’ likelihood of leaving. Based on those findings, Genentech is rolling out a new “Working Flexibly” philosophy and toolkit, among a series of initiatives geared toward improving the employee experience. It’s intentionally a philosophy, not a policy, precisely because of this variation in what working flexibly can and should look like for different segments of the workforce. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members who missed the webinar can watch a replay of it on our member site.)

For instance, if Genentech had decided to implement a policy that all employees could work from home or adjust hours during certain days of the week, there would have been big segments of the workforce (employees in manufacturing plants or research labs) who just wouldn’t be able to benefit because they have to be at a specific work site. They also didn’t want a flexible working policy to conflict with a core tenet of their culture: that the best collaboration and innovation happens through co-location. Instead, their philosophy encourages teams and managers to think about what working flexibly should mean for them on an individual and team level, while as a firm, they have begun experimenting with ways to serve different populations and their various flexibility needs.

The Genentech example and Kossek and Lautsch’s meta-analysis both connect to our ongoing research, which points to the need for organizations to think of their employees as consumers and thus market HR solutions to them as they would a consumer product. We’ve seen that HR teams are actually hurting themselves, and not helping their employees, in part because of how they select and design HR policies.

In many cases, once an HR team has identified a challenge, they take the time to create, perfect, and scale a solution that works for everyone and will provide a lot of long-term value—all before ever delivering it. So, if they know employees are leaving because of a lack of work-life balance, they normally ask: What does that look like for the most employees, and what overall solution can we put in place that solves the challenge for everyone?

This approach, which we call “enduring design,” looks smart on paper, but in practice it can dilute the effectiveness of the ultimate solution. It also doesn’t generate value until the “perfect solution” is ready, normally long after some aspects of that solution are viable.

As an alternative, we advocate a process of “evolving design”:

  1. Start with a specific problem for a specific population.
  2. Hypothesize about how to solve it (and involve employees, so you understand the challenge from their perspective).
  3. Implement an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  4. Observe how employees react, then adjust and improve the solution based on those observations.
  5. Finally, think about scaling: Where else does a similar problem exist and can a similar solution apply?

Evolving design relies on understanding that a solution does not need to serve all employees identically: Their experiences are different, so solutions probably should be too, and you might lose out on generating value or supporting certain groups if you only tackle the most generic problem that the majority of your employees face. It also requires a mindset that embraces experimentation and iteration, along with a willingness to put off scaling a solution until it has been tested and proven. Considering the variability in employees’ work-life balance needs, organizations that are looking to design or redesign a flexibility program might consider this (more flexible) approach as a means of solving that problem.