Work life Balance and Technology: Are You Sending Employees Mixed Signals?
In my 30 years as an HR professional, I have seen technology dramatically erode employees’ work-life balance. The pervasive 24/7/365 mentality has created a set of expectations on the part of clients, employers, managers, and even among employees themselves, that force employees to feel that they need to make a choice between career success, and sustaining a meaningful personal life. In their Harvard Business Review article “Managing the High Intensity Workplace,” Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan indicate that often organizations pressure employees to become “ideal workers” and they assert “to be ideal workers, people must choose, again and again to prioritize jobs ahead of other parts of their lives…people believe that achieving success requires them and those around them to conform to this ideal.”
You may be thinking, that does not happen in my organization; we are committed to ensuring our employees work-life balance. I have observed however, that even in the most well-intended firms, employees may be receiving messages that undermine these good intentions. One example of this occurs when managers send their direct reports emails or texts in the evening or on the weekends. Most employees will feel that they need to respond to their manager. This expectation is further reinforced when managers, in front of their teams, recognize employees who respond after hours. “Thanks, Jane for going above and beyond on Saturday night and getting back to me on that delivery issue, sorry to interrupt your family dinner.” (This is what Reid and Ramarajan label the “high-five factor.”) Don’t get me wrong, in this age of heightened (I would say sometimes unrealistic) client demands, there are urgent issues that may require immediate attention, but I would suggest managers need to ask themselves, “Does this issue raise to the level of urgency…or can it wait until normal work hours?”
Managers can also undermine employees work-life balance when they confuse “activity” with “results.” Publicly recognizing an employee for working 50 hour workweeks, without consideration of what the actual results were produced in this timeframe, can set up the impression among the team that it is the amount of time worked, not the results of the work. (And let me tell you, employees know who on their team is generating results and who is just putting in time!) In her HR Magazine article “My Job Ate My Vacation,” Susan Milligan talks about the danger of making “face time king” versus a focus on the contributions employees are truly making to the organization.
What are some of the actions organizations can take if they are truly committed to ensuring work-life balance for their employees? Something as simple as instructing managers, if they are writing emails after hours, to hold these messages in their “Draft folder” until the next work day unless the issue is truly urgent (and senior leadership needs to identify what defines urgent). Milligan even suggests that firms take this a step further and consider banning email from 7p.m. to 7 a.m. Reid and Ramarajan recommend minimizing “time-based rewards.” Instead, they suggest “encouraging people to focus on achieving their goals and measuring actual results rather than hours invested.”
So, I would challenge leaders, even those in organizations with the most progressive work-life policies, to ask themselves (or even better ask their employees!): “Are we sending mixed signals about the value we place on work-life balance?” “What behaviors are we truly recognizing and rewarding?” You may be surprised by the answers you receive!
Managing the High Intensity Workplace, Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan, Harvard Business Review, June 2016.
My Job Ate My Vacation, Susan Milligan, HR Magazine, April 2016.