Much has been written recently about the importance of work-life balance for employees. And I do not disagree with this in principle or in practice. No right-minded business owner or CEO wants droves of overworked, irritable, stressed-out employees milling about. This is not for altruistic reasons alone, although basic human decency is a factor. It's because high levels of stress and dissatisfaction at the office can lead to lower overall productivity, a bad work culture, and high turnover--all of which are costly in terms of both time and money.
Nor does any right-minded CEO or business owner want to tip the work-life scale too far the other way, where there's too much "life" and not enough "work" happening throughout the organization.
So, how can leaders create healthy boundaries for their teams that will not only keep employees engaged and satisfied at work, but will also ensure that the most important objectives are accomplished?
It often starts with a shift in mindset for either the employer or the employees--or perhaps both. Here are four quick tips to get everyone on the same page.
1. Don't Mind Your Minutes
Years (or maybe decades) ago, I remember arriving at the office at 8:00 a.m. and noticing a manager sitting in an employee's cubicle, notebook in hand. When the employee walked in at 8:07, his boss looked at his watch, jotted something in the notebook, and left without saying a word. Point taken.
But what was the point? That exact time of arrival and/or departure is what matters most--even more than what gets accomplished in between? That 7 minutes is going to make or break the workday?
Luckily, this style of leadership is rapidly falling out of favor. Not only does clock-watching and minute-counting undermine trust, it's also a waste of managerial time. And it puts the focus in the wrong place.
If you find yourself upset that an employee showed up a few minutes late--and not to an important meeting or a time-sensitive shift change--pause and reflect on what the real issue is. If the employee is meeting or exceeding work goals, forget about the 7 minutes and enroll yourself in Micromanagers Anonymous. Then read the evidence: strict hours are bad for business.
If the employee is not meeting expectations, have a conversation about that instead.
2. Focus on the Goals
If employer and employee can both remain appropriately focused on the same outcomes, and expectations are crystal clear, then exactly how and when the work gets done will matter much less to either of you.
Research shows that giving employees greater flexibility with their schedules increases engagement and loyalty, inspires people to work more intensely rather than just "putting their time in," and results in higher-quality work.
You don't want the employee who's regularly knocking it out of the park to feel guilty about scheduling a haircut for 3:00 on a Wednesday, or be afraid to request to work non-standard hours if that's when she is most productive.
As an employee, if you know you're a strong performer, don't hesitate to ask for the flexibility you need rather than letting resentments build up and eventually overflow.
3. Remember Flexibility Goes Both Ways
Managers who are flexible about late start times, mid-day appointments, early-evening recitals and soccer games should not expect to receive pushback from those same employees about the need to occasionally burn the midnight oil or answer emails or texts on weekends. If you sense things are getting out of balance in either direction, it's your job to speak up--whether you're the manager or the one being managed.
Managers need to confront and coach employees who take flexibility to extremes, as well as team members who never leave early or take time to recharge. You may find yourself telling one person you need more face-time with her in the office while counseling someone else to just go home and unplug already. Make sure workers who don't have children at home understand that they're entitled to just as much latitude as those with school assemblies to attend, otherwise resentment can take root.
Likewise, employees must cultivate a give-and-take mentality rather than expecting leniency to come from the top down only. If you left early on Friday, be willing to catch up on Saturday if needed. If you volunteered to coach little league every Tuesday afternoon in April, a week of late nights to hit a project deadline in May shouldn't faze you.
On the flip side, if you have perfectionist or workaholic tendencies, and you find yourself watching begrudgingly as other team members (appropriately) take advantage of flexible policies, remember that it's up to you to give yourself a break.
4. Acknowledge the Business Reason Behind the Perks
Realize that every time you as a manager offer something new to employees, like a positive policy change or a new benefit, they'll be excited and grateful at first. But eventually the novelty will wear off, and they'll forget they once didn't have unlimited PTO, flexible hours, or the ability to work from home twice a week. It becomes the new baseline of expectations. So don't expect eternal gratitude.
Besides, if you're completely honest with yourself, you're not simply offering these perks because you're a great person or because your employees deserve them, but because there's a built-in advantage for the business--such as keeping up with the benefits offered by the competition, reducing PTO liability, increasing employee engagement and loyalty, improving employee health and wellness (and thus, productivity), or freeing up desk space in the office. Don't hesitate to allude to the purpose behind the policies, and to regularly reframe and remind team members that when something is given, something is generally expected in return--you're all in this together.
The Two-Way Street
As a culture, we're trending toward "work-life blend" rather than an either/or balance that requires us to strictly separate work hours from everything else. And the ease of logging into email and online work environments remotely is blurring the line even more. As social psychologist Ron Friedman has said, the 8-hour shift "was designed to maximize the productivity of a factory, not human beings."
If you do want to maximize the productivity of human beings in this new world of work, employer flexibility is key--as long as employees reciprocate with increased productivity, engagement and loyalty, which for the most part, they will naturally do.