Work/Life Loses Balance

Corporate leaders now say work/life balance isn’t as important to them as it was several years ago, a survey finding that is probably indicative of the economic situation, generational differences and the advances in mobile technology. Still, experts say, individual leaders may react differently, so it’s important for HR leaders to find out what motivates their top talent to be productive and effective.

It may surprise no one that, according to a recent survey, corporate leaders say work/life balance has tumbled a few pegs as a motivator in their eyes during the recent recession. With the economy showing signs, albeit incremental ones, of a rebound, will work/life balance regain its spot among the top five motivators for business leaders?

The jury is out, but some experts say that, while work/life programs may have lost some desirability among leaders (as defined by the survey), it remains important to the rest of the American workforce.

According to the Pulse on Leaders survey from PDI Ninth House, a Minneapolis-based provider of leadership programs and solutions, work/life balance ranked seventh of 19 possible motivators — where it has been since 2009, dropping along with the economic situation.

In 2006, it was ranked No. 4.

“Stimulating and challenging work” continues to be the No. 1 motivator among respondents, according to the survey, which asked more than 26,000 leaders across many organizations, between 2006 and 2011, to choose the five most important workplace motivators from a list of 19.

“Economic turbulence can be a key factor in causing leaders to re-evaluate what’s important to them,” says R.J. Heckman, PDI Ninth House president and CEO. “Understanding these motivators and what’s truly important to leaders is critical to attracting, engaging and retaining top talent in the workplace.”

Executives have different expectations now, he says, and many are willing to trade off some work/life balance to be leaders at high-performing companies.

He adds that a stronger motivator than work/life balance is the belief that the company is headed in the right direction — a motivation that switched places in the ranking order with work/life between 2008 and 2009.

“The recession revealed a less-trusting business environment,” Heckman says. “Among leaders, people are not expecting a company will remain financially stable or depend on work/life programs as much as pre-recession.”

And, he adds, with foreclosures and rising unemployment, some may consider themselves lucky to still have jobs.

“Interestingly, productivity and earnings have increased, but payrolls have not increased,” he says. “Employers are doing more with less, so leaders are no doubt subordinating some work/life balance.”

It’s not surprising to Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader for WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based member organization that focuses on global HR issues, that “supervisors and management feel work/life issues have become less important during tough economic times.”

“Especially during this particular recession, there is a lot of insecurity about what was going to happen with jobs,” she says.

For example, WorldatWork’s research finds that full-time teleworking employees (not necessarily leaders) are more inclined to feel they need more “face time” at work during the recession. Underlying that need was the fact that co-workers, especially contract workers, had been laid off, so it was seen as a job-security issue, she says.

Also, Stanley says, supervisors and higher-level employees have always been the least likely users of work/life programs, perhaps because they have more economic incentives and resources that allow them to better blend work with home life.

However, Stanley says, she does not see work/life programs in general declining because people’s problems and lives won’t be changing — and the occasional conflicts between work and life issues will not disappear.

“We have seen many organizations in this last decade embracing work/life programs … ,” she says, adding that a WorldatWork survey finds employers are actually boosting work-flexibility programs (a subset of work/life), rather than reducing them.

“Employers overwhelmingly said they would not reduce or stop offering flexibility programs, because of the recession, for the overall employee population,” Stanley says. “To me, that showed they understood the value of this type of work/life initiative.”

Of course, recession aside, the continued ramping up of smartphones, tablets and the entire mobile-computing landscape, will require a shift to more melding of work and off hours — which also could account for the PDI Ninth House report finding that leaders have shifted their view on the importance of work/life.

“The lines are getting blurred and it’s a mixed bag,” Stanley says. “You want employees to be engaged, satisfied and productive because stock price and profits increase.”

On the flip side, employees at all levels can get burned out because they can’t seem to turn off, she adds, noting that employers and employees need to understand that, even though a blurred line between work and home can be a good thing, it has the potential to be detrimental on many levels.

Contra the survey data, Alan King, president and COO at Workplace Options, a Raleigh, N.C., provider of support and work-life services, says his employer clients may have cut or cost-shifted other more expensive benefits, but added work/life programs as a sort of “give back” to help employees during tough times.

“A work/life benefit is a small percentage of overall benefit costs,” King says. “The cost of the service is not even 1 percent of the cost of health insurance, so cutting that benefit in terms of saving money was small.”

King also notes that at least 80 percent of his company’s services are used by workers below the mid-tier of management.

“Far more line staff than management staff uses our services,” he says.

Jeff Diana, chief people officer at SuccessFactors, the San Mateo, Calif., provider of cloud-based talent-management applications, agrees the view of work/life is being blurred by technology, leadership expectations and the life habits of today’s leaders.

“I have an app on my phone that connects me directly to my team around the world and I can access it from anywhere,” he says.

Also, he says, shifts in workplace values and behaviors are being heavily driven by the current — or soon-to-be current leaders — i.e., millennials.

Millennials, he says, have been profoundly impacted by this economy, and see this as their “Great Depression” experience.

“There is an inherent appreciation for fulfilling work and steady incomes that makes longer hours more tolerable and raises expectations of your peers and direct reports,” he says.

That another motivator that jumped ahead of work/life on the survey rankings — being surrounded by friendly team members — also makes sense to Diana, he says, as “kindness goes up in importance with co-workers spending so much time together nowadays.

“I don’t think we’ll see a huge shift in the importance of work/life balance in the near future, though that’s not to say that it won’t ever become important again.”

“The jury is out,” in Heckman’s mind, saying he doesn’t “believe work/life balance, at least for leaders, will come back strong in the near term.”

When unemployment was low, employers were more accommodating, he says. But today, the push to do more with less, the demand for productivity and the tech-tethered world argue against work/life balance returning to the top five.

“The other thing employers should never forget is one-size-does-not-fit-all,” he says. “They need to understand what motivates their specific workforce, and that even can differ wildly from person to person.”

For that to happen, he says HR leaders need to take inventory to understand what motivates their top talent, so the workplace will be productive and leaders can be effective and focus on what is most important.

“No doubt about it, leaders today are, to a far greater measure, more tethered to their jobs,” he says. “They are hooked for personal use and that bleeds over into work use.

Yet, he notes, work/life balance still matters. After all, it’s still ranked higher than money (No. 8) as a motivator for leaders.

By Tom Starner


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