3 Dangerous Assumptions in Corporate Work-Life Policy

by cv harquail on October 12, 2010

Isn’t Corporate Work-Life policy great? Here we have a progressive set of programs and strategies that:

  • Acknowledge that every employee is more than a worker,
  • Recognize that she or he is also a ‘whole person’ with a life that extends outside the workplace, and
  • Demonstrate that employees’ full lives should be respected and maybe even facilitated by the organization.

Organizations that promote work-life policies get lots of reputational good will. For potential employees, work-life policies make some organizations ‘better places to work”. Organizations find work-life policies and programs are often correlated with higher employee performance, higher voluntary effort, and stronger financial returns.

Organizational work-life policies seem like a win-win.

Organizations demonstrate respect for their employees’ full lives, and employees in turn respond positively towards the organization that is allowing them to manage the full breadth of their life’s activities.

But what if this view of Work-Life policy is more spin than reality?

What if corporate work-life policies also work against employees and against employees’ best interests?

Organizations and employees/members are not equal partners in the work-life conversation.

In reality, organizations wield virtually all the power in the relationship. Organizations set the priorities and parameters that control work-life policy. Organizations offer (and take away) programs that are designed more to benefit the organization than to benefit any individual.

Even the way that we talk about work-life policies and initiatives is controlled by work organizations. Work-Life advocates appeal to corporate leaders’ and their profit motives to sell corporations on the idea of work-life policies. Seldom do corporations seek out leaders who are advocating for the importance of whole and meaningful lives, of which work is only a part.

In the conversation about Work-Life, there are three unchallenged assumptions:

1. “Work” always comes first.

Think it’s a coincidence that the phrase is Work-Life? That “work” is something separate from “life”, and that “Life” comes as the afterthought and not the focus?

With corporate work-life policies, the priority is always making sure that work happens.

Here’s a case in point: The recent article on HBR’s blog: Why Companies Should Insist Employees Take Naps.

If encouraging employees to take a half hour nap means they can be two or three times as productive over the subsequent three hours late in the day — and far more emotionally resilient — the value is crystal clear. It’s a win-win and a great investment.

Why are employees so tired that they need naps? What happens with the extra energy recovered by a nap? Better work. At work. For the business. And the health, sanity and life balance of the employee who napped? A nice afterthought.

2. Work-Life problems are the employees’ fault, and it’s the employees’ responsibility to fix them.

When an employee needs a day off to attend to a sick child, or can’t make a last minute weekend work session because she’s signed up for a triathlon, whose fault is it that these ‘life’ issues conflict with work demands?

Not only are these conflicts the individual’s fault, but they are also the individual’s problem to deal with. The individual (not the organization) has to find a way to “manage” these competing demands.

But if you think about it, it’s the organizations that created these issues in the first place. It’s organizations that design their work systems, workplaces, and work expectations that make it next-to-impossible for most new mothers to breast-feed their infants. It’s organizations that set their demands so high that people work 12 hour days without time for some physical exercise.

3. Work-life programs are controlled by the organization.

When it comes to managing the relationship between the demands of the organization and the demands of engaged full human lives, the organization holds all the power. Sure, you can ask for a reduced schedule while your partner goes through chemo, or to schedule your dinner break immediately after sundown during Ramadan, but if you lose you managers good opinion of your job commitment as a result, tough. And, if you lose your job over it, too bad.

Even the most forward thinking companies, work-life pioneers like SAS, can be fairly described as designing work-life policies with the ultimate goal of making work, and not “life” easier.

Let’s Take Charge of the Work-Life Policy Conversation

Once we recognize these three dangerous assumptions built into work-life policy, how can we change the conversation?

Work-Life advocates inside corporations, in academia, and in consulting, need to recognize these three assumptions and resist letting them influence the conversation.

Obviously, I’m not going to recommend that we do away with work-life policy. We need to continue to pressure and persuade organizations to expand their work-life policies and build-in more work-life flexibility. We also want to continue to press for the understanding that work-life flexibility approaches are part of an organization’s overall competitive strategy.

Let’s make sure we don’t fall over backwards thanking organizations for fixing problems that they actually caused. Let’s not be overly grateful when they take small steps forward. Let’s not thank them for being altruistic when so many organizations are really just being instrumental. If their goal really is to make sure that more and better work gets done, fine. Let’s just be clear about that.

And, let’s not treat corporations that introduce work-life policy as though they are ‘the good guys’ for being socially progressive, when they are also the bad guys who have really just begun making appropriate amends.

We need to keep corporate work-life initiatives in perspective– too many are intended and executed to make things “better” and not to make the relationship between employees and organizations profoundly different.

Organizations may control work-life programs & policies, but we all should take charge of the work life/life work conversation.

Our goal should not be to “alleviate” work-life conflict for employees and members so that “everybody can be more productive”. Our goals should go beyond creating the flexibility that allows an employee to take time out to pray or to attend a child’s school play. Our goal should be to redesign organizations that respect and accommodate employees full loves. Only when employees can flourish both inside and outside of work can organizations finally flourish.

The Humans Must Be Controlled, AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by jarl Lyng on Flicr

See Also:
Tyson Foods lacks faith in its own identity.
Work-Life Fit is an Enterprise 2.0 Solution
Work-Life Initiatives Are the Foundation of Authentic Organizations

Working The Good Life: SAS Provides Employees With Generous Work Incentives: CBSnews


Scott Asai October 13, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Work-Life Balance is a reality in the workplace, but boundaries must be taught and enforced at work. People want work to be more than work and it should be, but it’s not fun and games before results. Creating clear objectives and goals is key to keeping people focused going towards something versus avoiding a mistake. Assuming is about miscommunication or lack of communication. Never assume, you can never over-communicate.

Gina October 15, 2010 at 9:27 am

I agree with Scott. If you give too much flex – people take advantage. The work must get done. People have things going on in their lives- but they must work to support all the things they want to do with their life. They are just happy to have the ability to find the personal balance they feel is right. Working is a fact of life- so it’s a good thing that more companies are making the culture enjoyable.

Anita October 18, 2010 at 7:03 pm

I don’t think that people would necessarily take advantage. I do think that the results-oriented workplace (ROWE) is a useful way for many workplaces to get results and provide the flex that workers need. The basic idea– that producing results is more important to a business than facetime– is simple and useful. I think it boosts morale to know that your work-product is the #1 most highly valued asset you bring, and that the company trusts you to bring your talent, get and show your results, make your deadline, and then be free to use your time as you see fit– on to the next project at work at home. And not a moment wasted at the water cooler.

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