A week or so, I presented my firm's annual business plan to our team, sharing an ambitious growth goal for the future and specific action steps for the year ahead. Team members had a lot of great questions afterwards, including several that relate to a topic people care a lot about: work-life balance.

The challenge for my company (and many other professional service firms) is how to achieve business objectives without overworking people. Since the more hours employees put in, the more fees we can bill, it's tempting to require people to work 60 or hours a week to meet revenue objectives.

But I believe that work-life balance should be an integral part of the employment agreement; an employee should not have to sacrifice his or her personal life to be successful.

Weirdly enough, this philosophy is unusual, at least in the work-obsessed United States. These days, many of my colleagues are logging crazy hours, even if they're not in the C suite (or earning C suite-sized compensation).

What's the problem? Quite simply, poor management. Well-run companies (or teams) don't have to burn people out to be financially healthy. Here are 7 strategies for creating an organization that is both productive and balanced:

  1. Make balance as much a priority as financial results. My company would make a lot more money if we set higher expectations for billability. There's an old trick used by a lot of consulting firms and agencies: set billability goals at 100% of a 40-hour workweek. What that means, of course, is that employee has to work a heck of lot more hours a week in order to meet their goals and have lunch, do administrative tasks, attend training, etc.  Davis & Company sets much lower productivity goals than our competitors. We start by building in days off, then we factor in non-billable activities. Yes, our revenues are lower, but our balance is much, much higher.
  2. Allocate sufficient resources. A staff of eight can never do the work of 10 or 12 people, no matter how many hours of overtime they put in. My firm is constantly analyzing our resource model, making decisions about how to use freelancers or contract workers vs. adding new hires based on our projections. Sometimes we wait too long to hire, which causes stress. But we're always aware of when pressure gets too intense.
  3. Set clear expectations. One reason that employees waste a lot of spinning from task to task is they don't know what to focus on. Identity what really matters to support company performance and achieve individual success. Be specific about what "good" and "great" look like.
  4. Help employees prioritize. If everything seems equally important, nothing is actually a priority. You must be able to distinguish between mission-critical work and stuff that can be put off (or handled quickly). And you have to be diligent about setting priorities on a regular basis (as often as weekly or even daily). Plus, you need to defend your team members' right not to get things done right away.
  5. Allow for (at least some) schedule flexibility. Our company has a very collaborative work style, so we prefer most people to be in the office most of the time. But we're getting better at two things that help employees with work-life balance: working from home and flexible hours. For example, today a team member started early so he could leave early for an appointment. And another colleague has a cold, so she's working at home (presumably in her pajamas).
  6. Create a generous time-off policy--then hold people accountable for taking the time they're entitled to. In a previous column, I described our time-off program, which can be summed up like this: We give a lot of time off--and encourage employees to take it. (It seems painfully obvious, but I'll say it anyway: Time off is a great antidote to burnout.)
  7. Exemplify the behavior you are advocating. In other words, you must walk the talk. For example, I used to wake up in the middle of the night and send emails. Now I wait until at least 6 a.m. (still early, I know, but at least it's defensible). And I really really try to take time off (including weekends), even though that's hard for me.

And here's the bonus: By modeling work-life balance, I actually get a breather. That means my team is not only better rested; I am, too.

Published on: Jan 23, 2018