Everybody has a different opinion about just how involved employers should get in helping workers juggle their personal and professional lives.
But there's one area that nobody disputes: Concerns about stress, productivity and the correct combination of work and personal time are issues whose importance extends well beyond the winter holidays.
"We actually have a pretty stressful business throughout the year," notes Barbara Bates, a principal in Eastwick Communications, a Redwood City, Calif.-based public-relations firm that represents many high-tech companies. "We have a lot of clients we have to keep happy all year around."
Kevin Epstein, vice president of marketing for Scalent Systems Inc., a four-year-old Silicon Valley software company, shares that view: "We have to be available to our clients and highly productive while recognizing the importance of balancing work and family life at all times," he says.
That doesn't mean that either company takes an Ebenezer Scrooge-like approach to celebrating the holidays. In fact, they both take steps to help their employees enjoy the season as much as possible. "During the week between Christmas and New Year's, most of our clients are either very slow or shut down completely," says Epstein. "So, regardless of [each person's] vacation status, the company as a whole takes that period as a break." A volunteer skeleton staff remains on duty in case a client needs help, but everyone else gets to kick back in relax. Scalent also holds its annual company party for its 45 employees in February, after all the holiday hoopla has become history.
Eastwick, on the other hand, holds its celebration in December--but during regular work hours to prevent cutting into staffers' free time. The firm also encourages its 35 staffers to participate in a charity effort--buying and wrapping holiday gifts for local families in need--on company time.
But both organizations, like many other companies, want to keep their employees both happy and productive during the spring, summer and fall as well. So they've woven work-life considerations deeply into their cultures, being as responsive as possible to employees' personal needs while making sure that quality and productivity never slip. Says Epstein: "It's important to get the work done, but you need to balance that against being with your family, playing with your kids, spending time with your partner."
To that end, both companies offer flexible scheduling and allow employees to work from home or other locations at least part of the time. One Scalent employee telecommuted from Thailand during an extended trip to that country, and several Eastwick staffers telecommute full-time from their home bases in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other distant cities.
Bates says there's a solid incentive for addressing work-life issues, and it's directly related to the reason she and two partners started their firm 15 years ago: "It's a highly competitive market and we want to attract the best people in the business. One way that we can do that is to offer interesting work, opportunities for professional growth and development, and a work environment that's not going to suck the life out of their souls. We try to make sure that everyone's work and life are balanced--because that's what we want in our own lives."
In fact, recruitment and retention are the two biggest business reasons for getting serious about work-life issues, says consultant Cali Williams Yost. "Quite simply, we've become a 24/7 work environment because of technology and globalization," she says. Current and prospective employees in many fields know that their jobs could easily eclipse their personal lives; as a result, they increasingly seek situations offering flexibility.
Companies interested in developing those attractive environments need to start by adjusting their mindsets, says Yost, author of Work+Life: Finding the Fit That's Right For You (Riverhead/Penguin Group, 2005). For starters, she recommends that managers view the question in terms of "work-life fit" rather than "work-life balance" because "fit" better acknowledges that each employee's situation is unique--and likely to change over time.
But top-down policies won't bring about meaningful change, warns Yost, founder and president of the Work+Life Fit Inc. consulting firm based in Madison, N.J. Instead, she recommends that companies adopt a "partnership" approach, encouraging employees to suggest arrangements that fit their own needs while still ensuring that work gets done--and gets done well.
For Epstein of Scalent Systems, the work-life issue boils down to a new take on an old motto. "The 'work hard, play hard' approach burns people out," he says. His revision: "Work hard, then spend time with your family and friends. Work hard, live well."