Work-life balance means valuing the whole human.
The 2017 World Happiness Report, which analyzes happiness and its sources around the world, found that work-life balance is by far “the strongest workplace driver of an individual’s subjective wellbeing.” Employees who feel a sense of balance are not only more engaged and productive at work, they also take fewer sick days and are less likely to burn out or leave. According to research from Hay Group, at organizations that don’t offer enough support for work-life balance, one in four employees plans to leave within two years. And losing good talent is costly: On average, replacing an employee costs 21 percent of their annual salary. To retain their best talent, companies need to value employees as whole people, giving them the time and support to lead fulfilling lives, both at work and outside of it. It’s not just about whether someone is a millennial or a baby boomer, single or a parent: It means respecting the things that make people feel complete, whether it’s their family, their pet, or their vintage motorcycle — because different people need (and value) different things. So how can an organization establish policies and build culture in a way that stays open to those differences? Sabrina Clark is an associate principal at SYPartners, a leadership consultancy that’s dedicated to helping leaders transform their company cultures. Several years ago, the company was grappling with its own issues of work-life balance. Clark led SYPartners’ efforts to make what they call “sustainable engagement” a cornerstone of its culture. In a conversation with Leadfully, she shared her insights on what worked.
Start with a point of view.
There was a lot of pressure at SYPartners: the demands of a fast-paced industry, the ambitions of high-achieving colleagues, and the always-on mentality that technology has brought to the work. “We have ‘greatness’ on our door,” Clark explained. “Being in a service-oriented company means you tend to be driven by your clients’ demands and expectations.” The company’s leaders realized they had to be proactive about establishing its perspective on work-life balance. “We did a lot of research, looking at the best practices of other organizations, talking to our own people, and looking at science,” said Clark. “Professional athletes, for example, stagger their workouts for the best outcome: periods of intensity are followed by periods of rest to allow the body to recover.” Instead of focusing on productivity (trying to pack as much as possible into the workday), SYPartners aimed for sustainable engagement. They stated a belief that when people felt engaged in their work in a way that could be sustained over time, they would share a commitment to the company’s values and goals, actively seek ways to help their team succeed, approach challenges with more passion and creativity, and help drive business and innovation forward.
Be sensitive when changing expectations.
“When it comes to what keeps people engaged over a sustained period of time, it just depends,” Clark said. “People’s tolerance levels, what stage of life they’re in, what they’re looking for in their work versus other aspects of their life — all of those things contribute to what they need to be successful.” Building a culture of sustainable engagement is hard. “This can be a really sensitive topic for people who are caught in cycle of work they can’t see a way out of,” said Clark. “When this rolled out at SYPartners, some people were instantly able to adapt, while others didn’t really believe that they really could put in certain controls.”
Model the behaviors you promote — and be transparent when you don’t.
“Leaders can talk the talk but they really have to model the behaviors that make sense for them and encourage others to behave in a way that makes sense for those people.” The leader’s behavior shapes the team’s: If a leader answers emails in the wee hours of the night without explanation, that will become the implicit expectation for everyone. Instead, Clark said, “We need to make sure we’re really communicating with our team about what works best for the individual and what works best for the collective. I should feel fine about sending an email at night — I’ve just spent time with my kids and had dinner and now I’m logging back on. This is fine for me, but I have to make sure that I’m explaining to my team that that’s not what I’m expecting from them.”
Three types of time: An approach to sustainable engagement
SYPartners moved toward more sustainable engagement by analyzing how different teams spend their time and promoting a scheduling practice that considers three key types of time on the calendar. They also created a shared language, relieving individuals of the pressure to describe and justify their personal commitments. Planning time. Teams dedicate weekly time to plan and set priorities together, while individuals take stock of their own goals and personal commitments for the week. Open time. This is time devoted to getting work done and achieving development goals. Leaders avoid scheduling meetings during these blocks, while team members decide where, when, and how they work, collaborating with others as needed. Golden time. AKA personal time. Whether someone is training for a marathon, picking up their kids, or observing a religious holiday, in a culture of mutual respect, golden time is sacred, no matter what it’s for.
What you can do
Even if your organization hasn’t mastered work-life balance, you, as a leader, can start creating that culture with your team. Try these ideas for empowering individuals to take control of their own time:
1. Set rules for flexibility.
When are in-person meetings necessary? How should each person make the others aware of their schedule? The success of remote work, flexible hours, and other similar arrangements requires a collective agreement on the ground rules. If people don’t believe in what they’re being asked to do, or don’t understand why, they’re unlikely to adopt those practices. (See companies that have unlimited vacation policies, only to find that their workers actually end up taking fewer vacation days because they’re afraid of being stigmatized.) Merely allowing people to work more flexibly isn’t enough — but a clear rationale and positive reinforcement can help change perceptions and patterns over time.
2. Assess the now.
What current practices do you need to reevaluate? What messages are you sending to your team? SYPartners has a weekly ritual of coming together to share drinks, updates, and toast the victories of the past week. It used to be called “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers.” As Clark explained, “We were celebrating teams or humans that went above and beyond to deliver something — heroic acts, people who stayed up all night, working five days straight. Then we realized this was completely counter to the whole idea of sustainable engagement.” Sensitive to that nuance, the company held a contest to rename it and began celebrating team efficiency instead of extra hours when praising great work. (The event is now called “UnWined.”)
3. Get the word out.
If your team is trying to change the way they operate in a significant way, the leaders and teams you work with need to know. So do your clients. Clark suggests, “If you’re trying not to take meetings on Monday and Friday, don’t offer up Monday and Friday. It’s simple things, like instead of asking, ‘When are you free?’ suggesting a few concrete times.” Sharing the values and strategies behind how the team shows up at their best can help establish a more productive partnership — and it might even give those stakeholders a few ideas for reevaluating their own work-life balance.