With a new year here, I can't help but take a look back at my columns over the past year. In reviewing them, I see a continued struggle for work-life balance exemplified by a question I raised in a recent column: What is an average work week?
For those of us with anything beyond the most basic level of responsibility, most agree that a 9-to-5 work day no longer is a reality. Many of us feel like we’re “always on.“ The technology that brings our home life into our workplace and our jobs into our homes presents opportunities and challenges. I tackled some of them in this column in 2013.
One area of challenge arises from where we do our work. Can people be as productive at home as they are in the office? And, aren’t most of us working from places outside the traditional workspace at least some of the time? Earlier this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer called remote employees back to the office and set off a firestorm of debate.
In a March column, I asked: Can anyone really argue that Mayer is wrong to feel that there is value in the conversations that arise when people are physically together in a room? There’s a reason that Google has configured its offices with a lunch room extraordinaire. It’s to keep people on campus and working together, I noted.
After a multitude of conversations with experts and employees, I’ve come to believe that the best workplaces strike a happy medium - allowing workers to come to the office some of the time but also manage their own schedules.“ Corporate futurist Christian Crews, principal of AndSpace Consulting in Fairfield, Ct., said companies with the greatest competitive advantage are “managing the tension between getting engagement from employees who can make their own hours with the tension of getting critical mass in a building to create innovative new approaches to business.“ To me, companies that get that right will be around much longer than those that don’t.
Another challenge involves the technology we use to do our work. In a column last July, I noted that with continuous new technology, many employees want the latest smartphones, tablets or laptops to balance their work and home lives on their devices. We are more satisfied when we use our own preferred devices on the job. Allowing us to do so saves our employers money buying and maintaining equipment.
But as more employers embrace the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement, questions abound over whether we are ready for the heated issues cropping up such as our expectation of privacy and what happens if there’s a security breach. Should an employer have the right to search our personal device or wipe out the memory remotely should it suspect a concern?
Niza Motola, special counsel with the Miami law firm of Littler Mendelson, says the BYOD trend has made it evident that with the rapid advance of technology, the laws and workplaces haven’t caught up. “The lines are blurred on what’s personal and what’s professional at work and that’s only going to get more obvious.“
Some see opportunity in blurred boundaries between work and personal life. Another July column addressed the trend toward working vacations. It seemed the economic worries that led American workers to limit themselves to drive-by vacations for the past several summers had lifted. The two-week vacation made a comeback, mostly because people have figured out ways to integrate work and travel to make for a better return. The new guilt-free vacation centers on knowing when to check in and field calls and when to disconnect.
Cristy Leon-Rivero, chief marketing and merchandising officer with Navarro Discount Pharmacy, discovered that working on vacation meant she could take a full week off, but she and her husband tag-teamed to ensure their children wouldn’t feel shortchanged when their parents connected to their offices.
“I might say, ’Watch the kids for a minute; I’m going to get on a call,’ or he might do the same, but we keep our family activities time-protected.“ Leon-Rivero found that when she took a full week to let go of stress and relax, she was more productive when she returned. “The best ideas happen outside the office.“
Throughout last year, I dug deeper into the mindset of millennials, our youngest employees who are changing how all of us think and act on the job. In a September column, I wrote that millennials want an entrepreneurial culture in their workplaces where their ideas can help shape the business. But research shows managers often feel millennials want too much too soon and don’t know how to keep them on a career path that keeps them engaged. Frustrated, young innovators often take a “move up or move on“ attitude.
Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, feels the best strategy for managers is tell younger workers specifically what to do to become a manager in a set number of years. “Those expectations are so important, and nobody is setting them, which is why turnover (and frustration) is so high,“ he said.
While most of us have tried to separate our work and home lives, millennials want their personal and work lives intertwined. In another September column, I wrote about new research showing that this generation wants workplaces to be like second homes, their co-workers to be their friends and their bosses to be their workplace parents or mentors. While the big push in creating social workplaces has centered on ice cream-making contests and costume competitions, experts say the future is going to require a more strategic approach. Employers will need to build a “fun“ culture that encourages camaraderie, collaboration and dedication. Employers who get it and create that culture will find this innovative generation has a lot to contribute.
Of course, it’s not just businesses that can win from working well with millennials. In an October column, I wrote about a trend called reverse mentoring: Companies are pairing grizzled veterans with young up-and-comers. The arrangement works to retain eager young workers and keep older executives technologically and socially relevant. In some instances, it’s a formal arrangement; in others, it’s casual - much like traditional mentoring. But those of us seasoned workers who allow the younger generation to teach us how to use better use technology to communicate and connect will find ourselves more efficient. Our work-life balance is sure to benefit.
Lastly, I must point out that the Family Medical Leave Act celebrated its 20th year in existence in 2013. In our struggle to balance our family lives and our work lives, it is the one law that has made a giant difference for 35 million American workers. It’s been a godsend for those of us who want time to bond with our newborn, care for an aging parent or deal with a health emergency without the fear of losing our jobs. But as I wrote in a February column, FMLA does not guarantee time off with pay, and some of those who need it can’t afford to use it. Those involved in the passage of FMLA say they are pushing forward on the next step - federal legislation that would expand eligibility to more of the workforce and introduce a nationwide paid family leave. I hope the men and women of this country understand how vital this is for all workers and push for change.
Going forward, I believe the big work-life debate will be whether constant connectivity will lead to additional productivity and profitability, or whether just the opposite is true. Time will tell. In my experience, those who manage to disconnect, at least for a while, will find more of the balance that makes life fulfilling.
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegalgmail.com. Read her columns and blog at http://worklifebalancingact.com/.