Work-life balance is out, and HR is making way for work-life integration.
By Christa Elliott
Family life, social life, and work life—why not have it all? That’s the thought behind “work-life balance.” The term was coined in the 1980s, but the task turned out to be more demanding on workers than anyone anticipated. Luckily, there’s now a new game in town: work-life integration. Where work-life balance suggests that workers juggle and compartmentalize family, friends, and career, work-life integration rejects the idea that these things should be separated at all.
Need to send a few personal emails from the office? No problem. Want the option of taking more “working” vacation days or setting your own hours? Absolutely. Always wished you could bring your dog to work on Fridays? Under the work-life integration model, all of these things might become more common and acceptable parts of workplace life. Employees are encouraged, or even expected, to take their work home, and in return, they are rewarded for their dedication with extra vacation time, flexible hours, and other perks that welcome aspects of their personal lives in the office.
“Work-life balance used to be ‘okay, you go to work and your work hours are from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., and then you go home and that’s your family time’, but I think now, because we’re such an on-the-go society and a global society, people work around the clock,” Andee Harris, chief engagement officer at HighGround, explains. “For me, I think the advantage of the integration piece is that I now feel like I have more work-life balance. I’m a mom with two kids, and sometimes I need to come in to work later, and [with the work-life integration model] I can still do work while I’m sitting in a carpool line waiting for my kids. I can integrate more instead of feeling like I have to be at my desk between 9 and 6.”
Based on research of work-flow preferences, this employee-centric strategy has potential to increase employee engagement across the board. According to ADP’s The Evolution of Work report, 80 percent of American workers are eager and excited to be able to define their own schedules based on what’s convenient and effective for them. Likewise, 81 percent expressed excitement about working from anywhere, and 73 percent were excited about the possibility of doing all of their work from a mobile device.
Along with fostering higher workforce engagement and demonstrating an interest in the employee’s well-being, the work-life integrative model may actually improve the employer’s bottom line. When employees are able to choose a workflow that works for them, happier, more efficient employees are often the result.
“Anything that keeps an employee more engaged with their company and more productive will help an employer’s bottom line. An employee who feels fulfilled will be more productive and that productivity shows itself in revenue increases, decreases in unplanned time-off, improvements in retention rates and many other areas,” says Perks.com Chief Marketing Officer Deb Broderson.
Susan Hunt Stevens, Wespire’s CEO and founder, agrees: “Work-life integration creates a culture of trust, respect, accountability, and transparency. Rather than having employees who are just coming to the office to punch the clock, you have employees who are personally invested in the work they’re doing and are focused on doing their part to achieving company goals.”
Integrative workflows may play a key role in winning the war for talent in the future, but most organizations are not there yet. World of Work’s 2015 Trends in Workplace Flexibility study found that 53 percent of employees report that their organization has no flexibility strategy or philosophy. In the same study, 93 percent of employees stated that performance objectives for managers did not typically include goals that encourage consideration and/or use of flexibility options by their employees. Despite these findings, Harris believes that more and more companies will begin to embrace an integrative strategy.
“I think for more traditional companies, it’s harder because you have more traditional leaders, but because the world is so focused now on entrepreneurs and start-ups and how millennials work, the trend is picking up steam,” she says. “It’s all part of engaging your employees and getting the best out of your employees. It doesn’t matter where they are.”
Integrating home and office life stands to benefit some employers and employees, but where should companies start? Given that many organizations have been slow to adopt flexible work-life policies, most companies will be working from the ground up to accommodate the changing needs and preferences of their workforce. Best practices must be put in place to ensure successful implementation, including:
Enabling technology. Although flexible working arrangements may not be the entirety of what work-life integration means for a company, keeping employees connected via new technology is a major piece to the integration puzzle.
“Technology continues to be a huge catalyst in the success of work-life integration. As employees begin to work on more flexible terms, communication becomes increasingly important,” says Hunt Stevens. “Communication platforms like Slack and Jive, email and text messages make it easy for people to quickly contact someone for an update, and video conference technology can provide face time even if employees are scattered throughout the country.“
Understanding preferences. Like the companies that Workforce Management employ them, no two workforces will be identical, and so the policies put in place to help them integrate their workflow should not be the same either. In order to cultivate and offer policies that make employees happier and more productive, it’s important to understand
the unique needs of the workers. Does the workforce include many parents of young children who want
the option of leaving early to pick up their children from school? Is it primarily young single professionals who’d prefer more social events after or during work hours? “Flexibility” will look different for different demographics, and thus, employers should make a point of surveying employees about the types of changes they’d like to see.
“As with any project or program, I recommend surveying employees to find out what is meaningful to them,” Broderson says. “Starting with that information will let companies develop a work-life integration plan that will benefit all parties.“
Vanessa Brangwyn, vice president of customer success at Achievers, agrees. “Implementing a work-life integration strategy starts by really understanding your workforce, their career goals, intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, communication style, and the like,” she says. “Once this assessment takes place, the employer can consider how a work-life integration strategy fits the business model. Building employee rewards and recognition into the overall strategy will keep employees aligned with business objectives and company values, while enabling them to embrace work-life integration.”
Outlining expectations. One key strategy to making work-life integration effective—and by extension preventing abuse of flexible policies—is to make those policies transparent. Wherever possible, there should be written policies in place so that employees can fully understand their options when it comes to schedule flexibility, use of work-site amenities, and other perks. Brangwyn emphasizes the importance of communicating expectations to those who choose to take advantage of integrative options.
“Teamwork, collaboration, and open dialogue are critical,” she says. “Without maintaining this, employees run the risk of becoming their own island, or feeling overworked and underappreciated. Consistent communication and a culture of recognition can
help the company keep a clear line of sight into each employee’s activities, while maintaining and even boosting engagement levels. The focus should be on enabling success, not on trying to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of employees.”
When employees feel that their managers are working and developing policy with their best interest in mind, they are likely to work harder—knowing that their time at work is a team effort and that their work will be appreciated.
Encouraging cameraderie. Work-life integration is more than just asking employees to take their work home with them. It also means making work a more comfortable place by encouraging coworkers to get to know one another on a personal level. The experts recommend hosting company- or department-wide happy hours, upgrading the break room or allowing employees to start a book club or participate in volunteer opportunities together are just a few ways to do this. Employees who have developed friendships with their managers and coworkers will be more cooperative and motivated to produce their best work to help those around them succeed.