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Holding a Job, Having a Life: Strategies for Change

Structure & Organization, Work-Life Programs & Employee Assistance Programs - EAP
Posted by Work in America, at Friday, 06/24/2005 4:01 pm
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A Work in America Institute National Policy Study

Holding a Job, Having a Life: Strategies for Change

By Jill Casner-Lotto


Executive Summary

Holding satisfying jobs, living full, meaningful lives-for many working Americans, balancing work and life represents difficult terrain to navigate. Despite the wide range of work/life policies and programs available today, the existing policies still do not meet the need and, in many cases, do not achieve their potential value. Policies are rarely rooted in business strategies and may clash with corporate cultures. Excessive work loads and job demands require long hours and frequent travel. Access to flexible work schedules, while offered by a growing number of companies, is often limited by the nature of the job and level in the organization. And while there has been growing corporate support for child care, the reality is that only a relatively small portion of the workforce today enjoys such benefits as on-site child care or even child care resource and referral services.

While many U.S. employers have implemented work/life programs and policies such as child care, elder care, family leave, or flexible work schedules,  research has shown that such initiatives-by themselves--often have limited impact.

This report presents the findings of a two-year study by Work in America Institute that investigated how some companies have moved beyond simply adding a work/life program or policy. Instead, the employers in this study have adopted a strategic work/life-approach designed to accomplish a "dual agenda": to simultaneously improve business results and employees´ work/life integration.

To achieve this goal, these companies have made systemic changes in their organizations--for example, through redesigning work processes, changing the organizational culture, or integrating work/life initiatives with core business strategies and human resource systems--rather than simply adding on programs.


What Makes This Research Important

This research-based on detailed case studies of ten companies and three related discussion papers-builds on two earlier and important work/life studies that highlighted the importance of work design and workplace culture:

  • The Ford Foundation´s Relinking Life and Work: Toward a Better Future (1996) was based on dual-agenda interventions at three companies. The study found that by engaging employees in restructuring work processes, the companies could simultaneously improve business results and employees´ ability to manage work and personal life.
  • The Families and Work Institute´s 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce surveyed employees to investigate how work, family, and personal life fit together. Among the study´s conclusions: high-quality jobs and supportive workplaces are the best predictors of job satisfaction, commitment, performance, and retention. Both factors must be present, the study found.


The present study, conducted by Work in America Institute and funded by the Ford Foundation and 15 sponsoring organizations was designed to:


-        Analyze the in-depth experiences and learning of a larger and more diverse group of companies, moving toward a strategic work/life approach;

-        Define a framework for understanding the key elements of such an approach;

-        Document work/life initiatives that address the needs of salaried employees as well as hourly workers--a group whose needs have received less attention, and whose work/life resources are often more limited than those of salaried staff;

-        Describe in detail the change processes companies have used to develop innovative approaches, build support, and move from pilot projects to mature strategies that are diffused to other parts of the organization;

-        Provide business, labor, and public policy leaders with practical guidelines for creating work environments that support both work/life balance and business; and

-        Report the results-both for businesses and employees-that these initiatives have achieved.


Featured Organizations

The ten organizations whose work/life initiatives are profiled in the case studies include: Bank of America, Baxter Healthcare, Eli Lilly & Company, Ernst & Young, First Tennessee Bank, Hewlett-Packard/Agilent, Kraft Foods, Merck & Company, Fleet Financial, and Statistics Canada. They represent a broad range of industries and many different kinds of work and workers-- from white-collar

professionals to assembly-line pizza packers, from call-center customer service representatives to government employees.

In addition to the ten case study companies, the three discussion papers also included in the report substantially broaden the kinds of work and workers whose experiences are reflected in the report´s findings. Two papers address labor-management initiatives in the work/family arena. Among the unions profiled in successful labor/management initiatives are: Communications Workers of America; Local 1199 National Health and Human Services Employees Union, New York City; Local 2, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, San Francisco; and the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, AFSCME. The third paper explores some of the critical issues regarding the measurement of work/life practices and offers preliminary findings of a national cross-industry work/life measurement project.



-        Business results. Companies that have taken a strategic, systemic approach to addressing work/life issues report significant business gains, such as greater retention, productivity, and customer service and reduced absenteeism.


For example:

At Fleet Financial, a work/life redesign project increased flexibility in scheduling and reduced the work load for underwriters by redistributing administrative tasks and changing other work processes. The intervention enabled underwriters to increase the time spent on "real underwriting," as opposed to administrative tasks, and to significantly reduce seasonal loan backlog.

At Statistics Canada, work/life and other human resource strategies have paid off in turnover rates that are about half those of other agencies and the lowest grievance rate of any government department.

At First Tennessee Bank, 93 percent of managers felt their employees were more productive, and 88 percent of employees said they were more committed to remaining at the bank following a massive cultural change program with a significant work/life component. In one bank division, business doubled over a six-year period, while in another key operations department, productivity improved by 50 percent.

At Ernst & Young, in parts of the firm where the Office for Retention implemented life balance prototypes or pilots, turnover dropped dramatically and client satisfaction increased. Ernst & Young estimates that the OFR´s efforts have contributed to the increased retention of employees, responsible for savings of $14 to $17 million in turnover costs.

-        Benefits to employees. As a result of such innovative approaches to work/life issues, employees are able to integrate their work and personal life more satisfactorily-- for example, through increased flexibility; reduced work loads, overtime, and stress levels; and more free time for family, community, and recreational activities.

At Hewlett Packard/Agilent, field technicians were required to meet customer requests within a two-hour turn-around time while operating on a 24x7 schedule. Together, they redesigned the work schedule to meet the service standard and also to give everyone real time off--days when they could turn off their beepers and keep their personal commitments.

At Merck & Company, after a work redesign process was implemented in the payroll department, overtime was cut in half and the number of employees on flexible work schedules doubled.

At Ernst & Young, employees and their managers negotiate life-balance agreements every six months to address such issues as how many days they will travel. Meanwhile, "solution teams" redesigned travel schedules overall to allow more time at home, and "utilization committees" meet regularly to oversee employees´ work-loads, evenly distribute the work, and balance client expectations with employees´ personal needs. The new rule: no one is required to check e-mail or voice mail on weekends or vacations.

At Fleet Financial, the change initiative dramatically increased employee satisfaction with the new work system, enabled employees to spend more time with their families and in leisure activities, and significantly reduced sleeplessness, which had become a chronic problem affecting many employees in the work unit.

-        Innovation through employee involvement and the dual agenda. The work/life redesigns described in the report differ from management-driven, top-down reengineering, because they encourage strong employee involvement and encompass both work/life needs and strategic business objectives.

Addressing both dimensions creates a synergy that improves employees´ lives and unleashes individual and team creativity.

At Kraft Foods´ Sussex, Wisconsin, pizza plant, workers who took part in a high-performance work redesign developed a schedule and a new team system that not only boosted production but also reduced huge overhead costs and assembly down-time and made it easier to recruit and retain people. It gave employees greater flexibility and predictability in their work hours, making it easier to arrange child care and transportation. It also provided employees-many of them first-time job holders out of welfare-to-work programs- with increased pay and training in business and team decision making.

-        The challenge of getting managers on board. When work/life initiatives are integrated with work redesign and cultural change--as they were at companies such as Merck and Bank of America--their success depends on managers´ willingness to listen to,and act on, employee feedback. However, managers may feel threatened by such a participative change process, which they perceive as a loss of control rather than an opportunity to improve work effectiveness.

-        Systems to support managerial change. Given managers´ crucial role in creating a supportive work environment and the natural resistance they may feel toward changing old practices, companies need to find ways to encourage desired behaviors. For example, Bank of America, Merck & Company, and First Tennessee Bank found that managers needed extensive coaching to deal effectively with employee feedback and involvement. At Statistics Canada, line managers´ support of such practices as flexible working hours, training, and career development is assured through performance reviews and a highly mobile internal job market that permits employees to move to a different job in the organization if their present manager is not supportive.

-        Measurement matters. Despite a growing body of evidence that strategic work/life initiatives contribute to the bottom line, more work needs to be done on the measurement front. Among the recommended strategies:

1.      Underlying cultural and work environment factors that impact usage of work/life programs should be studied and incorporated into the measurement process.

2.      In addition to quantitative results, the qualitative, hard-to-measure outcomes should also be documented as part of the evaluation process. For example, managerial effectiveness may be an important outcome of work/life redesign initiatives-in terms of freeing up managers´ time, requiring less oversight and control over employees, and allowing more time for strategic business planning.

3.      Employers should hold managers accountable for promoting a supportive work environment. Although companies are incorporating support for work/life balance into managerial performance reviews, companies need to develop better ways to measure such support. In addition, more explicit rewards/recognition programs for supportive leaders should be developed.

-        Use of data to leverage change. Data gathering and analysis can serve as a powerful stimulus to change. Using internal benchmarking and surveys, Baxter Healthcare was able to build managerial support for work/life initiatives and reshape organizational culture to place a higher value on treating employees with respect. Survey findings led to the addition of a new work/life standard into the company´s statement of Shared Values and into key human resource systems-an important step toward a uniform standard for a highly decentralized company.


Other Approaches

In addition to the work redesign and cultural changes companies in our study have made to simultaneously address work/life and business issues, the report also captures three other approaches: public-private partnerships, joint labor-management partnerships, and collective bargaining agreements.

-        Public-private partnerships. Public-private partnerships, implemented at state and community levels, represent an important strategy for addressing child care problems. Such partnerships can be highly effective in leveraging federal, state, and private funds and mobilizing diverse resources. Eli Lilly & Company partnered with state, community, and business stakeholders to improve child care throughout Indiana. The results led to much more effective and systemic solutions than any one partner could achieve working alone. As the state´s largest private employer, the company not only improved the child care resources available to its workers. Employee loyalty, morale, commitment and retention also improved as a result of the company´s leadership role.

-        Union-management partnerships. Joint labor-management partnerships can develop innovative work/family solutions, as they have for unionized hotel and restaurant workers in San Francisco, health and human services employees in New York City, and clerical workers at Harvard University. When the partnership is part of the collective bargaining agreement and there is a joint committee to plan and carry out initiatives, unionized organizations can be ideal places to model genuine employee participation in work/family issues. Such partnerships are not easy to accomplish or sustain, however. They require mutual trust, joint leadership commitment to work/life as a priority, and adequate financial resources and training to enable the parties to move from an adversarial to a collaborative relationship.

-        Collective bargaining to limit mandatory overtime. Mandatory overtime has emerged as a critical work/family issue, causing serious disruptions in employees´ lives and impacting customer service, as demonstrated in the telecommunications industry. The Communications Workers of America´s successful efforts to curb mandatory overtime through bargaining have led to new provisions in bargaining contracts with employers that limit mandatory overtime and require a joint committee to oversee and monitor overtime issues.


Critical Challenges

The report concludes by highlighting critical challenges organizations face when they link work/life initiatives with a strategic focus. Key among these challenges is the task of diffusing and sustaining these change initiatives throughout the corporation. The ultimate success and staying power of innovative work/life strategies will depend on:

  • building a broader understanding of how work/life strategies can address both business and personal needs;
  • developing a chain of support and participation emanating from the top, middle, and grass-roots levels of the organization; and
  • creating tools and practices to help other parts of the organization replicate the change process.

In this regard, there are promising signs of success. All of the work/life redesign initiatives have gone beyond the pilot stage, and corporate strategies and resources are in place to replicate change processes. And even in organizations with the most mature cultural change processes, steps are being taken to expand upon or revitalize existing efforts. Despite the diversity of approaches to work/life integration, the cases presented in this report share a common theme: the commitment to continuously learn, evolve, and improve upon strategies that address both business and work/life needs.