Work-Life Initiatives Are the Foundation of Authentic Organizations

by cv harquail on January 29, 2010

Earlier this week I met with a group of organizational change advocates, each of whom is dedicated to reshaping the relationship between work and life.

Work-Life issues per se aren’t really my gig, although I’ve had a fair amount of work-life conflict in my day as an employee and as a manager. However, I invited myself along to this strategy session because I’m convinced that work-life fit, synergy, resonance, whatever-we-call-it is something we have to address if organizations themselves are to be(come) more authentic.


I have noticed in my own organizational change work and in the perspectives of other consultants how often conversations about work-life strategies are kept at the sidelines. When we talk about how organizations can, will, or should change, we talk about technology, sustainability, flattening hierarchies, innovation, and so on, but we don’t talk about these opportunities in ways that pay attention to work-life issues.

Worse yet, we fail to remember that creating organizations with better work-life resonance is the only thing that will make any of these other initiatives effective.

You’d think that organizational change consultants, corporate strategists, and everyday leaders & managers would be interested in what is clearly the strategic initiative that would support and enable all others initiatives.

Instead, folks seem to be deterred from paying attention to work-life issues because we don’t ask each other to address the myths that make work-life a side issue and not a central issue.

These three myths are that (1) Work-Life is a women’s issue, (2) Work-life initiatives are only for employees who can’t keep up, and (3) Work-life initiatives are ‘nice to have’ but not critical. I wrote earlier, in The (Feminist) Business Bloggers’ Lament , about how sexism prevents us from considering work-life strategies, so let’s focus here on the other two myths.

Myth: Work-Life Initiatives are only for employees who can’t keep up.

When an employee needs some kind of flexibility in his or her work arrangement, managers and organizations implicitly assume that there is something “wrong” with that employee. After all, other employees can accept the constraints of the job as designed, so what’s his/her problem?

The employee who asks for flexibility is asking for ‘accommodation’ because he or she just can’t cut it.

We assume that the employee asking for flexibility is the exception. Every other employee fits quite nicely into the box we’ve created, right?

By focusing on the individual as the problem, rather than considering the role of the organizational system, we overlook what’s really the problem. What’s not cutting it is the relationship between how our organizations are designed and how human lives really are.

Our organizations are designed to ignore the realities of human lives. Our organizations are designed to create a competition between work and life, and then to stack the deck so that work wins.


And, when organizations do provide any kind of job or career flexibility, we treat it as a generous effort by an organization to provide remedial help. Flexibility is treated as a benefit for that particular employee, and not as a business-enabling move that serves the whole organization.

The conversation rarely if ever considers work-life initiatives as the first step in creating a resilient, agile organization.

Myth: Work-Life initiatives are ‘nice to have’, but not critical.

Our assumptions about work-life issues reflect the very strange, and in many ways misguided, view of what work in an organization should be.

Our notions of what organizations should be and what capacities they should develop keep expanding. We want our organizations to be able to produce and/or respond to clients 24/7/52, we want more productivity, more innovation, and even more social relationships that create profitable social capital.

And, we want to get all of this from the same employees, with the same (old-fashioned) job design, work system, and human resource approaches.

I never like to reduce us humans to our mere bodies, but think of this example: Would we ever design organizations that made it impossible for people to take bathroom breaks? Or take some time out to eat? Or to breathe?

Yet, we design organizations so people can’t get enough sleep, can’t come to work restored, can’t muster up the energy to get excited about their work, who have to be motivated to be(come) engaged. These are just the limitations we notice when we think of ourselves as creatures whose only purpose is to work.

blue squircles mag3737When we look outside the work box, and we consider ourselves as human beings who desire full lives, rich lives, productive lives, and nourishing relationships, how can we imagine better organizations without re-imagining how organizations can resolve the work-life conflict? After all, this conflict is created and sustained by these very organizations.

We’ve designed work and organizations in ways that make it very difficult for all of us to find a fit between our work and our life outside of work, or between our lives and the work that is part of our lives. We have designed organizations to estrange us from the very parts of our lives that create us as whole, authentic, humans.

Working & Organizing Differently

As my organizational change colleague & Work+Life Fit blogger Cali Yost reminds me, the research on work-life difficulties shows that

“People don’t want to work less. People want to work differently.”

We need to stop treating work-life issues as though they were the occasional concern of employees who can’t hack it, and stop treating corporate work-life policies as something nice that we do for the less-than-ideal employee.

Instead, we need to have a work-life fit conversation in which we recognize that workers have lives, that our lives include and extend beyond our family roles, that each individual has a unique understanding of what work-life profile works best for them, and that how an individual defines and achieves work-life fit will change over the course of an individual’s life.

We need to think big and inclusively about what each individual organizational member really needs to live a full, authentic, engaged life. And, we need to think of this before we ask for more from organization members.

Our biggest opportunity as change agents and leaders is to embrace the reality that successfully addressing Work-Life issues will be the core component of any plan to improve, grow, change, and expand what we expect from our organizations.

An organization’s work-life strategy can enhance (and impede) the organization’s capacity to do what it wants to do, whether that is to make money or to change the world. Work-Life fit, resonance, responsiveness or whatever-we-want-to-call-it is what will make it possible for organizations to become more resilient, more agile, and more effective.

We want to work in organizations that don’t ask us to compromise the breadth and depth of our lives outside or inside work. We want to work in organizations that help us live and work responsibly and joyfully. We want to contribute at work and everywhere else in our lives as authentic, whole people, in authentic organizations.

This might seem like a vision of mythic proportion… but it’s simply reality.

Photos from Flickr: Chinese checkers from cbcastro, Squares in there from mag3737


Cali Williams Yost January 29, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Amen, my friend. Amen. Thank you for so clearly debunking the misguided, out-dated myths that keep work+life fit and flexibility from playing the central role in organizational strategy. Here are some links to other posts I’ve written on Work+Life Fit and Flexibility as strategic imperatives that should be part of every organization’s operating model and culture:

“Work+Life Is Not About ‘Nice,’ It’s About Long-term, Strategic Global Competitiveness”

“5 Lessons from CFOs: How to Make Work Life Flexibility a Biz Strategy, Not Perk/Benefit”

cv harquail January 29, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Cali, I should totally give you a hat tip– Without having the chance to talk with you about your work, I would not have gotten past my own reservations and worked to articulate this for myself. You are a really great role model.

Matt Grawitch January 29, 2010 at 6:12 pm

My hat is off to you on this great work! Getting people to understand that improvements to the work-life interface are not about more time off, less work, fewer days, etc. (unless per specific organizational needs) is extremely difficult. Lots of the stuff on work-life balance implies escapism and wanting to work fewer hours, but that is not what work flexibility (or Work+Life Fit) is necessarily all about. We have data that use of vacation time, leave time, etc. does nothing to reduce work-life conflict, but that work flexibility (like flextime and telecommuting) has a positive association with engagement and a negative association with work-life conflict. So, keep up the good fight. We need to better people’s understanding of the ways that people can (though not always) be more productive without so many rigid rules.

Chrysula Winegar January 29, 2010 at 9:19 pm

A brilliantly articulated case for the broader issues beneath this entire conversation. Your myth de-bunking enables work life strategy to be seen clearly for what it is: a vital foundation in the entire physics of how an organization functions. In addition to Matt’s revelations, the data also tells us that people want control. They want to be able to make choices. Why this automatically is always interpreted as “less” is beyond me.

It’s about empowerment, trust and the opportunity to be treated like a grown-up. And in turn requires employees to behave us such. But to stretch your analogy, that’s still a little tricky when you have to raise your hand to go to the bathroom!
.-= Chrysula Winegar´s last blog ..Rocking the House of Work =-.

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