Devising Effective Work/Life Programs

Julie Shenkman
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It's ironic, but to hear Sandra Burud tell it, having an early and fervent advocate may be one of the worst beginnings for a company's work/life program.

The fan - usually from HR - sells top management on one or more initiatives, and they're implemented. But then he or she moves on to another job or, worse still, another company. The orphan programs, which management never really bought into and weren't integrated with the company's goals and culture, are abandoned with a lot or a little disdain.

Burud, a Ph.D. and principal of Bright Horizons Family Solutions in Watertown, Mass., told an audience at the 2000 WorldatWork convention in Seattle how to do it better. Interestingly, only one audience member had previously attempted to collect data on the effectiveness of the company's work/life efforts.

Advocate, know thy audience

Whether you want to begin some programs or defend and strengthen the ones you already have, you have to know who's receiving your pitch, Burud says. Is it the people who will use the programs? No, no, no, she stresses.

Employees are not the sponsors, and they're not paying the bills. In fact, relying only on employee opinions to help you begin or tailor your efforts has two drawbacks: It's likely to give you much of a benefits orientation in structuring the initiatives, and it usually won't be enough to convince top management to keep shelling out the bucks.

The top management is your true audience for documentation of the effectiveness of whatever you do in the realm of what Burud calls "people-supportive work practices." Work/life initiatives are one niche in this realm.

The first step, then, is to assess the personalities and backgrounds of your highest officers, taking special note of the qualities that are likely to remain at the top of the organization even if those particular people move on. Ask yourself, "What really pushes their buttons?" Perhaps it's bolstering customer satisfaction, or becoming the employer of choice, or simply saving money.

Next, identify the company's core cultural values - for example, customer service, speed, or innovation - and its overall goals. Here too, Burud offers a caution: Don't treat everything you find as equal, since this approach will blunt your own ability to make a compelling case. Apropos of this point, Burud recalls a Lily Tomlin quip: "I always wanted to be somebody. I should have been more specific."

You may conclude, for example, that the organization's primary goal is high-touch service, which would suggest an objective of shorter response times. Look also at what else is going on in the organization that might provide potential linkages or present significant barriers. An equally useful search is for the challenges the company is facing, such as globalization, adapting and using leadership, or improving recruitment.

Now that you know what to look for, how do you find it?

By this point, you've decided what you'd like to know about your programs that will be most persuasive. Now you are probably ready to start collecting data. In this process, take advantage of resources available to you, such as an in-house research organization or outside consultants. Here are some key measures that may provide useful data:


Break down your company's overall turnover rate into one rate for people who have used work/life programs and one for those who haven't. (One software company has reduced turnover to 4 percent through work/life initiatives, while the industry average is 20 percent.)

Consider the turnover rate for hard-to-recruit positions only, making the same involved/noninvolved comparison.

Study attendance records for involved and noninvolved employees.

Break out performance evaluations in the same way. If you have company measures of individual productivity or efficiency (number of widgets made or loans processed, for example), compare these according to involved/noninvolved people. If existing measures - of productivity or customer satisfaction, for example - are by department or work group, compare the work/life participation data for those groups with the productivity measures.

Ask your health care coverage carriers to provide your medical department (not HR!) with the names of employees filing work-related stress claims, and have them matched against participants/nonparticipants in work/life options.

Look at the size of the company's applicant pool both before and after work/life programs were implemented. You might also look at how well the pool meets recruitment needs.


Ask recruiters, both inside and outside the company, for their opinions of how influential the work/life efforts are among job candidates.

Whenever interviews or focus groups with existing employees are held, include questions about the value of work/life programs.

Solicit opportunities for case studies among your departments, work or project teams, or remote locations.

Identify the company's peak performers, and find an opportunity to interview them about the role work/life programs have played for them in performing their jobs.

Strengthen your efforts still more

Assuming that you've obtained some positive data, or at least figured out how to find what you're looking for, Burud lists some additional steps to be taken - and pitfalls to be avoided. With moderately well-established programs, draw a profile of your typical participant and then match it against the demographics of your organization. Places where there's no fit can suggest fine-tuning or new wrinkles you might encounter.

If you encounter low rates of participation, the reason may not be that you've offered the wrong options. One male manager told Burud, "Sure, the company has work/life programs. I wouldn't dare sign up for one; it would signal that I'm not committed to my job." Further research in the company showed that he wasn't alone; the corporate culture discouraged involvement in the programs. How to solve that problem? With an effort that Burud recommends for all organizations that are serious about helping employees balance life and work: Measure and rate supervisors on their support for the programs and how well they communicate that support. Making it count in their performance evaluations and paychecks is an effective means of underscoring the organization's commitment to success in people-supportive practices.


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  • Reegan
    Great thinking!
  • Bones

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