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How HP Solved the Work-Life Conundrum

Are work-life initiatives doomed to fail in a 24-7 take-no-prisoners economy? An innovative program says that they can work — if planners balance employee needs with business needs so both win.

Can you run a demanding business and still let your employees run their lives? It’s a question more and more companies are facing as they struggle to compete in a 24-7 take-no-prisoners economy. In the face of tough times, once-fashionable work-life initiatives are in danger of being scrapped or sidelined until the business climate improves. For employees, that means the game has changed: Forget chasing your passion; most people are happy just to have a job — even if they’re working longer hours because of staff cuts and if their work-life balance is completely out of whack.

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But there’s never been a better time to talk about sanity in the workplace, says Barbara Miller, president of Artemis Management Consultants in Mill Valley, California, which specializes in organizational change and work-life issues. “Morale is down,” Miller says. “Companies have to figure out how to support postlayoff survivors so that their workload is manageable. You can’t continue to stress out people and still accomplish your business goals.”

Promoting sanity in a survival-of-the-fittest economic environment, however, requires a business-orientated approach. “Traditional policy and programmatic approaches to work-life challenges have not considered the needs of the business,” says Miller, 54, who has spent 27 years in change-management consulting. “These approaches have only focused on accommodating the needs of the individual employee. Rather than saying that every single employee needs to have the option of a telecommuting or part-time job, we need to focus on the way the work is designed.”

Chronic work-life imbalance, says Miller, is not only an employee problem; it’s a business problem. One side of the equation can’t achieve a sustainable solution without genuine buy-in from the other half. Says Miller: “What are the business needs? What are the customer needs? What are the employee needs? How can we structure work so that it’s a win-win-win situation?”

How? How? How? That’s what Ron Kegle wanted to know five years ago. At the time, Kegle, 57, currently a staffing and development manager for Hewlett-Packard’s crisis-management team, headed an HP customer-engineer territory covering six states. In the face of escalating work pressures, he was desperately looking to provide some relief to his overworked team. Life on the front lines was becoming an all-out frenzy as customers increasingly called on engineers to troubleshoot equipment problems in the evenings and on weekends. “They were shifting work to the off hours,” Kegle recalls. “That meant that anybody on standby was doomed to some long days.”

The around-the-clock demands of the information economy were taking their toll not only on Kegle’s team but on the company’s bottom line. In a year and a half, turnover of engineers on Kegle’s team had climbed from 4% to 10%, and many unhappy engineers transferred to other divisions within the company. Others, fed up with constantly being on call, threatened to leave the company. Overtime for Kegle’s territory was at an all-time high — 25%, way up from the usual 12% to 14%. “I knew something was wrong,” Kegle recalls. “And I knew from my days as a customer engineer that overtime just gets you old, tired, and 51 cents on the dollar after taxes.”

Determined to find a solution, Kegle attended a work-life conference, where he was introduced to Miller. Months later, they teamed up to tackle the dilemma troubling Kegle’s division. Kegle wanted a business solution, not a work-life program. The goal, he says, was to connect two seemingly contradictory goals. “Contrary to popular belief, companies don’t have to pit employee needs against business needs,” Kegle says. “We threw a lot of our work rules out the window. We wanted to completely rethink the way the job gets done.”

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Their approach took the form of a systemic-change process called ReInventing Work that helps organizations recognize the interdependencies between work and personal life. Developed by Miller, the program offers a holistic approach to a human issue — both making a living and having a life. “Managers and their teams learn how to examine their cultural norms and their habitual work processes, how to change their culture and redesign their work so that everyone benefits,” Miller says.

You will never figure out where you’re going, Kegle says, if you don’t understand where you’re coming from. Drawing on ReInventing Work strategies, the group first examined its present work culture. Miller taught that change begins at the individual and team levels, where cultural norms and processes are developed — such as the all-too-familiar pressure of face time.

Customer engineers began by examining their regular work practices — which ultimately led them to commit to a new goal: serving customers within a couple of hours. But to relieve the burden of that pledge, the group also redesigned its work schedules to create alternative shifts — such as three 12-hour days, Fridays through Sunday, plus four hours Monday morning.

While the majority of engineers were slow to sign on, 8 of the 108 engineers volunteered to step forward and test-drive the alternative work arrangement for 90 days. Before long, even some of the program’s worst critics had a change of heart and wanted to give it a try. The alternative schedule was especially popular among young employees who wanted to return to school and among golf aficionados who wanted to have afternoons off to improve their swing.

The result? Overtime was cut by about half — from 25% to 13.6% — within 90 days after the new work arrangements kicked in. Employees were happier, Kegle reports, which resulted in happier customers. “There were fewer zombies wandering around HP,” he says. “By having some engineers committed to the off hours, the rest of the engineers were free to live their other lives, and customers received better, faster service.”

More than five years after its initial implementation, the ReInventing Work process has been either replicated or retooled in dozens of other divisions throughout Hewlett-Packard.

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So how do you measure genuine employee satisfaction? Kegle, who now telecommutes from home in Tucson, Arizona, draws on personal anecdotes. “I asked one of the guys working on an alternative work schedule what he thought about it. Before he could answer, his wife stepped forward and said, ‘We really love it. I see more of Fred — and we have more time to sleep in together.’ When the wife starts telling the big guy — two and three levels above her husband — what’s going on in the bedroom, I take her word as fact.”

Learn more about Hewlett-Packard and ReInventing Work in a two-hour PBS documentary Juggling Work and Family, scheduled to air on September 16 at 9 PM ET. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith, the television program explores the everyday tension that people face between work life and personal life. From knowledge workers at Hewlett-Packard to rank-and-file employees at Marriott International, Smith takes an in-depth look at the hard sacrifices underlying the balancing act and a handful of necessary changes to accommodate the needs of today’s workers.

Christine Canabou (ccanabou@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. Find out more about ReInventing Work on the Web.