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How to put America’s 24/7 work culture to an end

October 30, 2015, 7:14 PM UTC
Silhouette of businessman in lotus position surrounded by work, love and finance worries
Photograph by Agent Illustrateur—Getty Images/Ikon Images

You’ve probably seen the recent headlines regarding companies at which some employees pointedly describe a culture that demands impossible and unsustainable standards. Or, perhaps you’ve seen stories of company “perks” such as on-site gyms, gourmet dinners, and nap rooms that make it convenient for employees to work long hours. What you may find even more interesting are the recent changes coming from companies like General Electric (GE)and Virgin (VA) that offer unlimited vacation and family leave for both parents.

Today, more than ever, companies are taking the “long view” of talent management ─ meaning that they believe their employees are happiest when they can be effective in the workplace as well as their personal lives. Many of the companies found on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list recognize that what’s good for employees is also good for the company. These organizations also know that generous work-life policies help them win the war for talent.

All too often, however, the conversation in the workplace is stuck on the word “balance.” For many, managing work and life responsibilities is rarely a question of balance. Most of us will work the bulk of our adult lives, and our work is important to us. Yet, we find importance in other parts of our lives as well. While we can certainly prioritize, we simply can’t trade one part of our life for another, and nor would we want to. The pursuit of balance in the workplace too often feels like a win-lose proposition, either way you look at it.

The question we’ve asked ourselves at Catalyst, a nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization, is this: Is there a better way, as companies and employees, to create a culture in which we are all tackling the right work at the right time?

For example, our research shows that when leaders empower their employees to determine where and when work gets done, they help create an inclusive workplace where employees feel valued and report increased team citizenship and innovation. This inclusive leadership approach helps foster a culture that supports what we call, “Work-Life Effectiveness,” which challenges the status quo by recognizing that there are many different ways to work effectively. It also breaks down long-held habits of how, where, and when work gets done. A culture that is inclusive of different working styles allows each employee to bring his or her best and most productive self to the job. It also acknowledges that every employee has a personal life and they do not all look the same.

Building true, lasting work-life effectiveness into the corporate culture is a multi-step process. The first thing to do is to find ways to support work-life effectiveness within the organization. Often times, there are successful instances that can already be found in the workplace. It’s simply a matter of identifying those instances, seeing what worked, and then getting management personnel on board with proper language and encouragement. Once these early assessments have been done, leaders must revise policies to position work-life effectiveness as a business tool unto itself. The culture will not take root unless these approaches can be mapped to tangible company goals – by which overall organizational success is judged.

Once the expectations are properly articulated, the organization can begin measuring by these new standards. To support work-life effectiveness, employees must be measured on their contributions and their results; not on perceived, intangible metrics like the time put in. Rewards also must be expanded to allow for multiple career paths. The key to sustainable work-life effectiveness is the understanding that personal success at work is not a one-size-fits-all proposition – different opportunities will make different employees happiest. Finally, to ensure that work-life effectiveness truly takes hold across the organization, managers must be provided with the right skills and tools, as well as a consistently articulated message from the highest levels that their work-life effectiveness efforts are supported.

As daily workplace demands increase, and as the battle for the best talent to meet those demands continues across every industry, the key to success becomes less about balance and more about achieving overall effectiveness – as individuals and across entire organizations.

Amelia Costigan is a director at Catalyst and lecturer of inclusive leadership training on edX. Emily Troiano is a senior director at Catalyst.