Marketing and misconceptions around work-life balance
A lot of organizations miss the mark on work-life integration. They think setting up a ping pong table with a few pizzas and movie passes every Friday is what employees want. While that may satisfy a percentage of the workforce, the real impetus behind work-life integration is about giving employees their own time to live their lives.
As a Consultant at The WorkLife HUB, this is the message Agnes Uhereczky relays to leadership and management. She understands how floating misconceptions and marketing illusions can stifle organizations from reaching their full potential as great employers.
Work-life integration has become a pressing workplace topic, especially in recent years, but every organization seems to have a different definition of what it actually means. How do you define work-life integration?
Uhereczky: It’s about being able to fulfill your roles and responsibilities at work and outside of work, to the best of your abilities. We firmly believe that it is possible to craft a great career while being happy, healthy, and fulfilled in your personal and social life at the same time.
We also prefer the term work-life integration instead of work-life balance. On a traditional scale, balance implies that you have to take something from the other side. It’s not like that. You can have both. You can have several spheres of your life at the same time that you value and appreciate.
On the outside looking in, many organizations might look at what it takes to create a work-life integration strategy and claim they don’t have enough resources to manage one. What do you need on an organizational level in order to execute a successful strategy of this nature?
Uhereczky: A big misconception is that leaders or managers think that building a work-life integration strategy is expensive. The reason why this misconception exists is that we have no real way of measuring the cost associated with the absence of work-life integration.
Organizations try to quantify and look at figures around absenteeism, sickness absence, how much it costs if employees do not return after leave, and employees taking all their knowledge and skills with them when they leave. These are really important costs for organizations. There is another hidden cost around employee disengagement as well, which is also very hard to measure. If your employees are there but only giving 60 percent of themselves, you’re losing 40 percent of the talent and skills of that employee. Organizations that are not mature enough to understand that the lack of this kind of investment is creating additional costs will come to the conclusion that a work-life integration strategy is very expensive.
Deloitte U.K., for example, are very transparent about this. They understand that a lot of very skilled and well-networked women leave the company just at the point of becoming partners and choose to take their careers elsewhere. Surveys have revealed that these women are moving forward with their careers and not just leaving and becoming stay-at-home moms. These women leave the company but continue to grow their careers and it costs Deloitte millions of pounds. Because they understood there was a tangible cost and lack of a work-life integration strategy, they have introduced their own agile working culture change initiative. Because of this initiative, the company has actually saved a lot of money.
You just touched on leadership’s view of work-life integration as an expensive strategy. What are some of the other major misconceptions associated with it?
Uhereczky: They think that by implementing a work-life integration strategy, they’re actually encouraging employees to work less.
In our consultancy work, we’ve come across these kinds of older managers who will say “okay I understand we’re introducing working from home, but who is going to do the work?” Well, your employees who are working from home will do the work. It’s really an issue about going against the old way of managing people, which was very much characterized by presentism.
The fact of not seeing your employees sitting at their desk from 9-5 creates a lot of uncertainty in management. They need to become more comfortable with uncertainty. There’ve been managers who ask employees to prepare a daily work plan for the days they’re working from home, which is totally unreasonable because you don’t ask other employees in the office to prepare a daily work plan.
It all stems from the fear that if you don’t see an employee, you can no longer control them. In reality, research shows that employees who are able to combine working from home and the office with more flexible start and end times are much more productive, engaged, and loyal. It’s good for business, but for certain leaders out there it still seems very counterintuitive and they have to unlearn a management style they may have been using for many years already which is quite difficult.
How do corporate perks play a role in creating and sustaining work-life integration? For example, Google offers free gourmet meals and Airbnb gives employees $2,000 a year to travel anywhere in the world. Do you think these companies are on the right track?
Uhereczky: I think perks are great, it just really depends for whom. Where are these employees at in their stage in life? What are they looking to get out of their work? If you’re 25-30, single, and know that now is the time to invest and work hard and you’re staying in the office every day until midnight — it might be nice to have a chef around who puts paninis in the fridge. For young people attracted to the Airbnb culture and way of life, travel money is also a fantastic perk.
I wouldn’t call these work-life balance policies or measures, however. Work-life integration is really about giving you the time to manage whatever needs to be managed outside of work and in your personal life. If you have a hobby outside of work or have children or elderly family members to take care of, you’re probably not going to appreciate a $2,000 travel bonus. You want time to be able to go pick up your kids and spend time with family and friends.
Flexibility is really about giving employees time to take care of their life outside of work. It’s the management of boundaries. The reason why Google and other Silicon Valley giants have come under a lot of fire is because of cultivating the long-hours culture, celebrating all-nighters, and creating campuses catering to all the needs of employees. They do this instead of giving them the time and space to look after their own health, enjoy a fulfilling social life, and be active in their communities. They work very well for single programmers, but if you have other important commitments in your life such as a family — these aren’t viable solutions.
I also think the Internet is inundated with these so-called best practices from Google and other cool and marketable companies generally based in Silicon Valley. They’re hailed for their workplace practices. The problem is that there are huge numbers of fantastic employers out there as well, but it’s not advertised so the sharing of best practices is unfortunately very limited. I think it’s a problem because we associate these fancy workplaces with the Googles and Airbnbs of the world and we don’t know about, for instance, a small company in Austria that is also doing amazing things.
When you look at the massive marketing machine behind a company like Google, how do you think that affects the overall workplace ecosystem and smaller companies that may be missing out on great applicants because of it?
Uhereczky: Social media and the Internet are really breaking down some of these marketing images companies are putting forth. Amazon workers, for example, get really short breaks and if the warehouse they’re working in is very big — they can’t even make it to the washroom. They had to urinate in plastic bottles at a U.K. warehouse. Of course, these workers had mobile phones on them so they took photos of these plastic bottles and shared them all over the Internet.
I think what companies don’t understand is that employees, because of the Internet and social media, can really take back a lot of power. Just recently there was a girl who wrote a huge post on Twitter that was shared all over the place about a horrible job interview she experienced. On the other hand, employees are also doing the same thing with positive workplace examples as well.
If you’re a candidate with options because you have a skill that allows you to choose from prospective employers, you can just go online and look at sites like Glassdoor and Indeed to get good insights into what it means to work there. Employers are now under pressure to get their act together because they can’t keep the negative elements of their company hidden for very long. You can’t just have glossy marketing on one side and reality on the other — it doesn’t work anymore.