Work Versus Personal Life: Fighting the Battle for Better Balance

If you work in the tech or finance sectors, are you doomed to super-long working hours and a disrupted family life?

At some companies, ensuring employees still have personal lives has become a priority that not only benefits employees but also boosts talent acquisition, employee engagement, and retention.

The challenges surrounding work-life balance aren’t confined to the most demanding industries, as evidenced by survey findings last year from Project: Time Off.

Close to half (46 percent) of 7,331 full-time workers who participated in the online survey indicated that their employers were either ambivalent or unsupportive of their "unplugging" from smartphones and other work communication devices during what is supposed to be their time off.

And the results also showed a correlation with employees’ views on whether their employer cared about them. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of employees at companies supportive of unplugging said their employer cared about them as people, compared with less than half (43 percent) of those employed by companies that didn't support unplugging.

At a time when the average U.S. employee uses only 54 percent of his or her vacation time (according to a separate survey last year by jobs website Glassdoor), the question of time off has particular prominence.

Restoring Work-Life Balance

Software companies PlanGrid and Sprout Social, and insurance company QBE North America have taken steps to support employees’ right to a private life. Their efforts aimed at restoring work-life balance include focusing on such things as flexible scheduling, remote work arrangements, and paid parental leave. 

Employers must take an approach that offers a range of options responsive to the varied needs of employees, according to QBE North America CEO Russell Johnston.

"Employees often have different standards and different challenges—elderly parent, young family, sick partner, or none of the above," he told Bloomberg Law in a March 27 email.

"The high-level keys to work-life balance are determining how you match the employees’ goals (personal and professional) with the goals of the organization and then providing job roles that can align with the employees’ goals," Johnston said.

Dealing With Bay Area Commutes

Listening to employee needs drove San Francisco-based construction software company PlanGrid to change locations four times in the past several years. Every time, "we made sure we were no more than 0.3 miles" from the nearest stop on Bay Area Rapid Transit, the city's public transportation system, Tracy Young, CEO of PlanGrid, told Bloomberg Law March 27. Now the BART stop is only a block away, she said.

This is more than a matter of convenience in a city where a 600-square-foot single-bedroom apartment is considered cheap at $3,000 a month. High costs and a housing shortage force employees into "horrendous commutes," Young said. That's why relocating to be close to BART stops "made sense for us, because we knew at least half our team would not be living in San Francisco otherwise." The company also covers employees’ commuting expenses.

PlanGrid also believes in flexible work schedules, Young said. "It's not about the hours, it's about the effort and the outcome. I don't need people just sitting at a desk. We have to trust the people we hire, or we're hiring the wrong people." Young said she expects employees to be "110 percent" devoted to work when they are working, and equally devoted to their family life when they are at home.

Flexwork an Attractive Benefit

That's a good approach, especially for attracting and retaining millennials, Helene Wasserman told Bloomberg Law March 28. Wasserman is a shareholder and co-chair of the Litigation and Trials Practice Group at management-side law firm Littler Mendelson's Los Angeles office. "They get the job done well and timely, but they like to be able to decide when to do it. You can get a lot more work and productivity out of them" by allowing a flexible work schedule.

Older workers caring for aging parents also benefit from flexible work schedules, Wasserman said. "This opens the door to people who can be wonderful in the workplace—they just need more flexibility."

Flexible work schedules are also the policy at Chicago-based social media management software company Sprout Social Inc., Chief People Officer Maureen Calabrese told Bloomberg Law March 27. "We don't have a face-time culture at Sprout. We work in sprints, using agile methodology."

The company is also flexible in the amount of paid time off it grants employees. Sprout "does not have a defined number of personal days an employee can take per year; we encourage employees to take PTO as needed, with the understanding that they are fulfilling their obligations to themselves and their teams," spokeswoman Kaitlyn Corvino told Bloomberg Law in a March 28 email. On top of that, employees can get 16 weeks of paid parental leave if they are primary caregivers, and six weeks if they are secondary caregivers.

These benefits help keep the rate of what Sprout deems "regrettable turnover" to less than 5 percent, and help with company diversity, Calabrese said. "We understand that people have multiple obligations outside work, and we want to make sure we make space for that, and for them."

A Recruitment Draw

The benefits are also "a really powerful part of the conversation in hiring," she said. A Sprout Social employee survey last August found 86 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that they can balance work and family life.

Employees using their employer's flexwork options should record their working hours accurately so they are paid appropriately, Wasserman said. Employers should examine the working space in the employee's home to prevent injury and resulting workers’ compensation claims. Some employers go so far as to supply ergonomic workstations for remote employees, she said.

Lifting limits on vacation time can work in certain creative or tech jobs, or in law firms, "with a group of employees that takes their work seriously," Wasserman said. Wellness benefits like gym memberships, smoking cessation help and weight-loss programs can lead to happier, healthier, more productive employees. "In this very stressful era, to obtain and retain high-quality employees, you need to offer them things," she said. "It's not a sweatshop."

Start a free trial to HR Decision Support Network and experience a complete HR solution that helps you find answers to your toughest questions.