Work-Life Balance: It’s Not Just a Perk Anymore28 Jul 2022
When does an employee perk become an employee expectation?
The answer often varies by geography and the nature of the perk. In the U.S., for example, Henry Ford popularized the 40-hour workweek in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1940 that this standard was codified into law. Similarly, the first U.S. employer-sponsored health insurance plan was introduced in Dallas in 1929, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that healthcare plans were broadly adopted by U.S. businesses.
When it comes to work-life balance, however, we seem to have made the leap from perk to expectation in little more than a year. True, it was a “COVID year” when time seemed to compress, the workplace became increasingly digitized, and businesses were forced to accelerate their transformation efforts. Still, a year is an incredibly short amount of time in which to rethink the employer-worker contract and to make work-life balance a central element of an employer brand.
In many cases, organizations didn’t have a choice. With the rise of remote working arrangements, both employers and employees recognized that workers could be just as productive working from home as from the office. And the demand for talent—exacerbated by the Great Resignation—shifted the balance of power to employees—forcing more companies to rethink their talent acquisition and retention strategies.
Remote work now tops many employees’ lists of expectations. Roughly six in ten employed adults say they are more likely to apply for a job with a remote work option, according to a recent Morning Consult survey. And more workers (61 percent) in a February 2022 Pew Research Center report say they are working from home now by choice rather than from necessity—a reversal from earlier in the pandemic.
The Pew study suggests that switching to remote work makes it easier for most employees (64 percent) to balance work with their personal lives. Nearly half (44 percent) say that working from home makes it easier to get work done and meet deadlines. Most (72 percent) say it hasn’t affected their ability to advance in their jobs. And, given the choice, 78 percent of those currently working from home all or most of the time say they’d like to continue doing so after the pandemic, up from 64 percent in 2020.
Organizations that are considering a return to office must be thoughtful and flexible in establishing their plans. Indeed, 71 percent of companies have changed their plans as a result of recent COVID surges, according to a February 2022 Conference Board survey. Just nine percent of survey respondents said they were in the office full time, while 46 percent were fully remote and 45 percent had hybrid work arrangements.
Given the vast benefits experienced thus far, it’s hard to imagine a work environment where remote or hybrid work are not part of the status quo or contributing to better work-life balance. Both employers and employees stand to reap the benefits in terms of improved health, increased productivity, more career advancement and greater creativity and happiness, to cite just a few.
What does all this mean for the project management community? I believe that the project profession will thrive with this new focus on work-life balance. We understand, perhaps better than most other professions, that collaborative teamwork is how work gets done. Good communication, coordination, discipline and focus have been tenets of project management for more than 50 years, and we’re now seeing more organizations adopt this way of working. It’s The Project Economy, and there’s no going back—not after all we’ve been through over the past several years.
Having said that, however, there are ways to make sure we’re fostering greater work-life balance among our teams:
Recalibrate the cost/benefit equation. As noted, greater work-life balance yields important competitive advantages. And remote working arrangements can aid in your recruitment efforts—allowing you to tap talent across a much wider geographic area and with a greater diversity of experience. Through the first six months of this year, for example, PMI has hired more than 85 percent of its employees from outside of its headquarters in the Philadelphia area, reflecting our increasingly global outlook and commitment to hiring the best talent wherever they may live. This distributed workforce allows us to be more global, more diverse and better at developing solutions to meet the needs of our varied stakeholders. It’s also had important cost-savings implications in terms of office space and overhead costs, enabling us to invest more back into delivering value to our stakeholders.
Focus on outcomes rather than micro-managing people. The important question, according to Melissa Swift of human resources consultancy Mercer, is what worker productivity looks like in terms of outcomes. “That’s a good organizational conversation to have,” she says, “and organizations that are really crisp on what they want to get done end up being able to generate more flexibility for their workers—because the more outcome-based you are, the more you can play with the ‘how.’”
Further refine the hybrid model. Inevitably, I believe, we’ll settle into a way of working that is based on the hybrid model. But we’re going to have to get better at making hybrid work for us. Technology will be the key enabler. Whether it's Zoom, Teams, or Slack—or some entirely new tool yet to be developed—I anticipate that the virtual world will continue to be optimized to create better opportunities for connection, collaboration and innovation.
For me, good work-life balance starts with people feeling engaged, valued and trusted to do a good job. It involves doing work that is purposeful and meaningful to the organization and to society. In the end, it’s not work-life balance we’re after—it’s simply balance. Work is just one aspect of our daily lives intertwined with family, friends, community involvement and so much more. Our aim shouldn’t be to balance work with our life, but to balance work among all the important aspects of our lives.