Is Work/Life Balance Achievable?
March 8, 2004
Is Work-Life Balance Achievable?
Every career path involves countless choices – what field to pursue, what level to aspire to, what role to play. But for many women in the workplace, those choices are often influenced to a great extent by their ability to manage both the demands of the office and the needs of family. While the opportunities for advancement are arguably more abundant than ever before, many women are choosing to exit the fast track – even when their careers are peaking – in favor of a more fulfilling path, like working part-time, caring for family members, or entrepreneurship. Those who opt to stay, however, are quite conscious of what they give up in return. Examining the experiences of the most senior women in the Fortune 1000, the research firm Catalyst, in its report Women in U.S. Corporate Leadership: 2003, found that 73% of the women reported being comfortable with any trade-offs they had made between their career and personal goals. So what are these women and their employers doing to stay sane while making sure the job gets done? And what are the consequences to employees who decide to “jump off the track”?
Stepping Off the Track
Women who voluntarily leave their positions to take care of their families have to think about how easily they can jump back in later if they so desire. As reported in a New York Times Magazine cover story just last year (“The Opt-Out Revolution,” 10/26/03), many high level, highly educated women are voluntarily stepping off the track. While their reasons for doing so vary, the lack of consensus on why it is such a prevalent reaction to the corporate workplace has many companies and researchers looking for answers.
“Temporarily exiting the career track to manage families is clearly a choice for employees,” says Goizueta graduate Rhonda Harper, a former VP of marketing for Wal-Mart, Inc./Sam’s Club, and founder and CEO of Real Truth Marketing & Joy, a strategic brand marketing consultancy. “Afterwards, some people may move seamlessly back into similar management positions, while others may need to be more flexible. For most people who have been out of the workforce for significant periods of time -- for any reason -- it is harder to jump right back in where they left off.” While some businesses accommodate “sabbaticals” for high-level employees to take time off for volunteer work or leadership development, it’s not clear whether years taken off for caregiving or other family commitments are treated the same way.
The economic crunch of the last few years has only added to the pressure. “In my experience, companies believe that happy and healthy employees are the most productive. Therefore, it is in their best interests to ensure that employees maintain work/life balance. We all know, however, that downsizing and increased expectations have undermined the ability of employees to manage their work during a regular 45- to 50-hour work week,” says Harper.
“If you find yourself in this situation you can do three things: (1) MyROI, (2) Delegate, and (3) Manage,” Harper advises. “‘MyROI’ is literally determining the return on investment for ‘my’ work. Many employees get caught up in doing work that has little return in exchange for the time spent on the initiative. So, stop doing the minutiae. In the end no one will know the difference, and it isn’t moving the business anyway. Then, delegate more! Many people have a tendency to do things themselves. Don’t. And, finally, manage the situation. Recognize your work/life balance as a real ‘key issue’ and create a plan to offset it. Discuss this plan with your supervisor and gain alignment."
Of course, it may be time to go elsewhere, notes Harper: “If none of these work, you can always move on to another company or position that more closely matches your needs.”
Linda Dembowski, a director at Norcoss, Georgia-based Optical Fiber Solutions, says that for her, work-life balance evolved as her life and career evolved. “When you’re unmarried, or even married without children yet, it’s easy to work extra hours or pick and choose your activities. But all that starts to change as you start having a family.”
Dembowski, now the mother of two boys ages 12 and 15, recalls that she always made a conscious effort to schedule her work-related travel around her children’s games and school events. After a few years of using childcare providers, Dembowski and her husband decided that she would be the breadwinner and he would be a stay-at-home father. “Initially, we had babysitters, a lawn care service, etc. Now my husband takes the primary responsibility for the needs at home."
Dembowski says that her employers’ policies have made a huge difference. “I’ve been fortunate that way – the companies I’ve worked for have always been very employee-friendly.”
Goizueta graduate Crystal Mario, president of Charlottesville, Virginia-based Rivanna Natural Designs, which makes handcrafted corporate gifts, believes that work-life balance is often easier to achieve when people get fulfillment from their career. “If you have the good fortune to find work that’s consistent with your values and personal goals, the pressure to make time outside of your job to pursue other things is much less.”
A software industry executive for 15 years, Mario chose to exit the field when the opportunity arose to become an entrepreneur. Her business uses renewable raw materials and provides work for recently arrived refugees. “When I was in software, I always felt that there wasn’t enough time in the day to do everything I wanted, even though I was working very hard,” says Mario. “As an entrepreneur, I have more flexibility – this is something I want to do, and it isn’t a 24-hour-a-day thing.”
Walking the Talk
Over the years, firms have become more accommodating of individual employees’ needs. “Companies have made a lot of progress in the past ten years offering flexibility to employees who are struggling to manage families and work. For instance, increased numbers of flex-time, part-time, and work-from-home options are available,” says Harper.
The way an employer structures work patterns can matter, too, notes Jill Perry-Smith, professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “Companies can provide more flexible and creative types of leave policies. However, this must be realistically balanced with the needs of the job and firm. With some professions, it may be difficult for a firm to ‘hold open’ a particular position, but this is where creativity comes into play. Companies can design jobs and distribute work in ways that allow people to smoothly leave and re-enter.”
Often, women who want to take advantage of an employer’s family-friendly policies find out that doing so could mark them in some way. If everyone is supposed to get x vacation days but no one takes any in practice, anyone who does schedule a trip to Hawaii will stand out. “In many cases, the customs are more important than a stated policy,” says Perry-Smith. “The tricky part may be in understanding the difference. It is wise for men and women in this situation to talk to trusted others within the same company, who have a similar circumstance, for guidance.”
Still, the fact that it’s on the books at all holds some weight. “A stated policy at least means the company is taking a first step and also means that people can use it if they choose, but must fully understand whether doing so would go against the informal norms. If so, they can decide to use it anyway, fully aware of the potential consequences, but perhaps they should also begin to question how well they fit with the organization,” says Perry-Smith.
People who step off the high-pressure track for more quality time with families are often viewed as brave, notes Monica Worline, professor of organization and management at Goizueta. “When people are in a senior management position and make the decision to accept a different role in the organization that allows more flexibility, others tend to view that as a courageous choice. There’s both internal pressure to contribute to the company and perform at a high level, as well as external pressure in our culture, in that we highly value moving up in a career.”
In many cases, employees are carving out a new path, adds Worline: “These people are insisting on creating flexibility for themselves even if none is built into the company policies, or they might step out of a management role and take on a more technical role, essentially moving backward on the ladder. They are loyal enough to want to remain with the firm, but are acknowledging a different set of life priorities.”