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The Future of Work

Why Managers And Employees Have Wildly Different Ideas About Work-Life Balance

Management thinks everyone has work-life balance, but employees want more flexibility. What's behind the disparity and how can we fix it?

[Photo: Flickr user CGP Grey]

"There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s work, and there’s life and there’s no balance."

You may recall hearing those words from Sheryl Sandberg, who is as famous for leading a charge for career women to "Lean In" as she is advocating for some semblance of sanity in her own life by juggling breast milk pumping during conference calls with a strict policy of leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. to be with her family.

At the time, Sandberg confessed that she kept the habit of "leaving early" under wraps and made up for it by letting work bleed into her home life by sending emails late at night and early in the morning.

Since Sandberg made this admission over two years ago, formal workplace flexibility programs have sprung up in companies both large and small. Eighty seven percent of human resource leaders say that staff working periodically from home has boosted employee satisfaction so much that nearly 7 out of 10 hiring managers use workplace flexibility programs as a recruiting and retention tool, according to research and HR membership service Workplace Trends and CareerArc, a global recruitment and outplacement firm. Nearly a third (29%) spent over $40,000 implementing a flex-time program last year, and more than half say they’ll invest more in those initiatives this year.

Unfortunately, flex time isn’t working as well for employees, according to the 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study, which surveyed 1,087 professionals, both employed and unemployed, in addition to 116 HR professionals, nationwide.

The results showed that while 67% of HR professionals believed their employees have a balanced work-life, almost half (45%) of employees and 35% of job seekers are still wanting more time each week for personal activities. That one in five employees surveyed spent over 20 hours working outside of the office on their personal time per week indicates that some are going well above and beyond the call of duty.

Why is there such a disparity? The answer is likely in your hand.

Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and accessible WiFi, work doesn’t need to be left at the office. The survey found that the majority of workers—65% of employees—say that their manager expects them to be reachable outside of the office. That squares with the 64% of employers who expect staff to be on call when they are officially off the clock.

There are other reasons for these differing expectations. "This is happening because HR, in most situations, isn't servicing the customer directly like IT, customer service, and sales, so there's less demand for them to do work around the clock," posits Dan Schawbel, founder of Workplace Trends, a coauthor of the study. He also notes that informal expectations for employees to be receptive to emails and phone calls outside of the office has further eroded boundaries.

"For most organizations, the work of the company takes priority over the life of the individual," says Cheryl Palmer, the owner of coaching firm Call to Career. "Human resources takes the position that work needs to be done regardless of the impact on the employee’s personal life."

This is at odds with employees who want a distinction between their work lives and their personal lives, she says, and by virtue of leaving the office, leave the cares and commitments behind. This is exacerbated by company cultures that support workaholism, not a balanced life, says Palmer. "If top management regularly logs 60-80 hour workweeks, the expectation is that lower-level employees will do the same."

Palmer’s theory is supported by the ghost of the economic downturn. Rodd Wagner, employee engagement expert and author of the book, Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They're Real People, argues that fear created by the recession and long term unemployment still lingers. "Once it became so simple to have everyone be on call around the clock, they were," Wagner says, changing expectations changed across the board. "Companies, afraid of losing a deal or dropping the ball for a customer, have passed the pressure on to employees," he explains.

Some place the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the staffers themselves like Emily Hunter, assistant professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. She says, "Balance is in the eye of the beholder and it depends on how much importance you place on each domain." Hunter says whether its a 70/30 work/life split or a 40/60 split it is difficult for employers to apply policies that satisfy everyone, and a reason that many HR family-friendly offerings like on-site childcare and referral programs are often underutilized. "Research suggests that people differ when it comes to their preferences on separating or integrating work and family," she maintains.

Bringing both management and staff to meet in the middle of this issue should just be a matter of talking it out. Robin D. Richards, CEO of CareerArc advises, "There needs to be open and welcome communication between HR and managers, and managers with their employees so that there aren't any assumptions being made about time being spent working outside of office hours."

If an employee spends more than 20 hours working outside of the office on their personal time, Richards says, "Learn from employees what it is they are working on during those hours, and determine if the company needs to revisit workplace flexibility practices or if managers need to set more clear guidelines for what is expected or not expected from employees."

Over at Hubspot, cofounder and CTO Dharmesh Shah, thinks that the notion of work versus life is misguided, and the company has baked in a three-word policy "use good judgement" designed to give employees autonomy, in hopes that each individual will strike their own personal balance.

"We know that people are often working even when they're not at work," he tells Fast Company, "So, we accept that reality and offer our employees unlimited vacation, flexible work schedules and other things that reflect that in today's modern workplace, happy productive employees want work-life harmony."

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