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Work-Life Balance: Back On The Post-Recession Radar

By Tom Starner, Human Resource Executive

When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently declared a ban on telecommuting for the company's workforce, the reaction was swift and fierce. Some in the HR community viewed the news as a symbolic setback for work-life benefits.

At the time, Mayer said she banned working from home because she believed Yahoo needed the solidarity of employees being together in the workplace in order to compete. It should also be noted that it hasn't been all bad news on the work/family front at Yahoo!. Not long after the telework announcement, it unveiled a new extended parental leave benefits program.

But Yahoo! aside, HR experts and executives seem to agree that now isn't the time for companies to trim their work-life benefits. As the lines between work and private life increasingly become blurred, work-life issues are more critical than ever in attracting and retaining top talent.

While Mayer's telecommuting ban may have sent shockwaves throughout the HR community, it hasn't stopped many employers from offering flexible work hours and other work-life balance benefits. Some believe Mayer's decision actually says more about her organization, and the corporate culture she's striving to rebuild, and less about the state of work-life balance as a whole.

"With the economy still tight, employees are continually asked to produce more with fewer resources," explains Amanda Augustine, a job search expert for TheLadders, a career-matching service based in New York. "Stress levels remain high. So the demand and desire for work-life balance is greater than ever before."

Statistics support Augustine's assessment. According to 1,500 women polled in a recent Village survey, 89 percent defined career success as the "flexibility to balance life and work." A national study commissioned by Mom Corps through Harris Interactive, meanwhile, revealed that more than two in five working adults (42 percent) are willing to give up some percentage of their salary for more flexibility at work (including working remotely). And Mercer's 2012 U.S. Compensation Policies and Practices Survey found that a large majority (65 percent) of the more than 620 employers responding offer flexible work hours.

"By providing work-flexibility options, organizations can avoid employee burnout, increase retention rates, decrease absenteeism, improve productivity and improve overall employee morale," Augustine says.

Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO of Mom Corps, a Marietta, Ga., flexible staffing firm founded on the premise of alternative work arrangements, says every indicator points to the importance of work-life balance. The problem is the difficulty of measuring their success once programs are put in place.

"Employers tend to be short-sighted about these programs," she says. "Some see them as 'getting in the way,' but in reality, they do drive productivity."

O'Kelly explains that eventually the Baby Boomers will start to retire in droves (the recession temporarily put the brakes on that happening), and most employers will have little choice but to boost their work-life offerings as they attempt to attract and retain talent.

"It is about flexibility and having control of your life," she says. "Not total control, but having some control so if something is going on with one of your kids, for example, you can take care of it on the spot.

"People just want to be treated like adults," O'Kelly says. "When that happens, they work really hard and employers reap the rewards."

If anything, O'Kelly says, Yahoo!'s decision to shut down telecommuting actually was positive because it put work-life at the forefront of HR discussions.

"There is a lot of conversation about Yahoo! and work-life right now," she says. "It's not moving fast enough because there is not a huge labor shortage. But when we start seeing more people retire and educated skilled labor become tight, then just like everything else, work-life will start to take off even more."

Elissa Tucker, human capital management research program manager for APQC, a member-based non-profit that focuses on business benchmarking, best practices and knowledge management research, says that over the past several years, high levels of unemployment may have pushed the topic of work-life balance off to the side. But with U.S. hiring reaching levels not seen since 2008 (as reported by the Gallup Job Creation Index), HR is going to need to revisit work-life balance.

"During the global recession, workers assumed heavy workloads and worked long hours in an effort to remain employed," she says. "As they gain more employment options, they will seek to restore balance between their work and personal lives."

APQC's research has shown that one best practice is to take a comprehensive view of work-life balance by providing "holistic support" for employees while they are at work and at home. Tucker notes that best-practice organizations studied by APQC offer a range of options to help employees pursue work-life balance, including health and safety programs, work-at-home policies, fitness benefits, support for dual-career families and sabbaticals.

Work-life balance is extremely important to Constangy, Brooks & Smith, an Atlanta-based law firm. Indeed, the firm not only fosters it among its own workforce, but encourages clients to do the same. In 2005, Constangy launched a work-life balance awards program aimed at honoring clients that offer effective work-life benefit programs to their own employees.

"While we work hard when we're at the office, we also recognize that we are people outside of work too, with families, hobbies and community involvement," says Amy Anderson, director of human resources for Constangy. "If people feel they are able to meet their obligations and life goals outside of the workplace, we really see how they are happier, healthier and even more productive at work. It benefits everyone."

Anderson notes Constangy didn't change its approach to work-life during the recession. But her sense is that many companies did.

"Right now, it appears that some companies are beginning to think about work-life balance again, and for good reason: employees and job-hunters still value it," she says, pointing to a recent Accenture study that found more than half of those surveyed indicated they had turned down a job offer because of the potential impact on work/life.

"That's a really telling statistic," Anderson says. "I believe this trend will only continue, and employers should be aware that they may lose desirable job candidates if they don't emphasize work-life balance."

Tom Starner is a freelance writer with Human Resource Executive®.

Copyright 2013 © Human Resource Executive®

The opinions expressed in the Entrepreneur and Human Resource Executive articles are the opinions of those publications and do not reflect the opinions of MetLife or its affiliates.

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