Manage Your Company’s Approach to Work and Life Issues

Back in the early days of TriNet Group, Inc., the company I founded in 1988, managing work and family issues was simply a matter of an employee coming into my office and asking for time off. Such requests had to be approved by the CEO, President, VP of Human Resources, and the worker’s direct manager — all of the above being, namely, myself.

I usually said, “Sure, Helen. See you in a few days.”

As might be expected, I didn’t have to field those queries very often, because people who work at a startup expect to put in long hours in the name of helping the company succeed. In smaller companies it’s easy to deal with such requests on a case-by-case basis.

However, when the company gets past the “work-now, survive-later” mentality and finds its path to profitability and longevity, the picture changes. Layers of vice presidents, directors, and managers are inevitably added, and it becomes increasingly easy for entrepreneurs to lose sight of their employees’ work/life issues. But for many reasons — not the least of which is their company’s own economic self-interest — they shouldn’t.

Found Money

TriNet is certainly an example of a company that started small and added complexity. The company, which provides human resources services for high-technology clients, has garnered over 400 customers, expanded to ten cities, and joined the Inc. 500 Hall of Fame due to rapid growth. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that employee productivity is “found money” for our company. Employees are likely to be more productive if they keep their batteries charged and their priorities in order.

Furthermore, employees are more likely than ever to expect flexibility from their employers in regards to work/life issues. In a recent study, a consulting company found that 83 percent of the respondents indicated a renewed commitment to personal relationships, and that workers are loyal to companies that acknowledge work/life issues and factor them into their culture.

Barriers to Balance

Unfortunately, entrepreneurs often squander the opportunity to take an active role in work/life policies once the company starts to grow, and the result is often confusion in the ranks. When line managers lack adequate guidance, they make decisions in a vacuum. One of two things happens: either work/life decisions are made inconsistently from one department to another, or managers will act conservatively in order to protect what they mistakenly believe to be the best interests of the company.

In either case, employees end up saddled with a negative outcome. You’re likely to hear managers tell them such things as:

“Have a great vacation. But you’re going to be checking your email, right?”

“I can’t let you work from home tomorrow. While we don’t need to have you here in-person, I’m concerned about the example we’ll set for the rest of the department.”

“Did you hear that the engineering department put in ninety hours last week? Our team needs to work longer, or we’re going to look bad.”

Giving your management team a clear track to run on will help you avoid these pitfalls.

Consistency Matters

Helping your line managers guide the work/life decisions for individual employees isn’t as hard as it sounds. All that’s needed is to practice consistency across the organization, providing clarity to four key areas.

1. Scheduling expectations. What is the expected workday for your salaried employees? Employees paid by the hour may be less of an issue, but companies vary greatly on their expectations of the normal work schedule for exempt employees. From the executive team on down, there should be an understanding of the shape of a typical employee schedule – one that balances the company’s need for a certain output with the equally important need for consistency across department lines.

Here’s an example of scheduling expectations negatively. A memo was recently posted to a public Internet site, which was apparently sent staff-wide from the CEO of a struggling company. He warned that he would be checking the parking lot after six o’clock, counting the number of cars in the stalls and expecting to see most of the employees still at the office.

A more positive approach comes from a major professional organization, which has a formal policy stating that employees aren’t responsible for checking voice or email when taking personal time. The company set a clear and consistent expectation across every layer of the organization: when you’re away, we’re expecting you to unplug.

2. Scheduling flexibility. Companies should ensure that their employees can accommodate children and family obligations. This kind of flexibility is two-pronged: first, it involves being receptive to altered schedules, such as employees arriving early or late; on an occasional basis, it covers the need for workers to attend a school play or care for a sick child. The nice thing about flexibility is that it can be implemented very easily – any standard PTO (paid time off) policy will do the trick.

3. Telecommuting. This practice can be a real advantage for employees, and can benefit, in particular, from an established policy. Companies need to determine before it becomes an issue what tools are necessary, what they will and will not pay for, and in what circumstances they will permit an employee to telecommute. It is, however, well worth jumping through the hoops.

In the case of TriNet, we had a valuable employee who wanted to quit because of the prohibitive cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. We didn’t want to lose her. So we arranged for her to telecommute from her new home in Stockton, California, which is about three hours driving time to our officer. She uses a company-provided workstation, DSL line, and fax machine. This solution will not work for all, but in this case TriNet was able to retain a key member of the team.

4. Maternity absence. In the specialized area of time off for childbirth — maternity, and increasingly, paternity leaves — the baseline involves adhering to the federal Family Medical & Leave Act, which stipulates that employers of a certain size must allow workers twelve weeks of unpaid leave.

FMLA is just a starting point, though. TriNet, for example, strives to reassure employees that meeting family obligations won’t penalize their careers. In many cases, employees who have exhausted their legally mandated time off return part time until they’re ready for a full-fledged return to work.

The Bottom Line

When coaching line managers in each of these areas, we stress an indispensable bottom line — the work has to get done.

Flexibility without restraint will end up cannibalizing the company’s resources. Unchecked, it can create a culture of entitlement in which work/life issues are resolved without an eye to the company’s larger objectives. However, as long as everyone works from the assumption that the specifics of a schedule are less important than the quality and the timeliness of the work itself, it’s amazing how much power can be given to the individual employee. When the company pays people to finish the work rather than punch a clock, a work/life schedule balance follows naturally.

With “the work has to get done” as your mantra, approach these four areas — expectations, flexibility, telecommuting and childbirth leave — as building blocks for creating effective work/life policies. Doing so will provide your line managers with the guidance they need to make appropriate and consistent work/life decisions throughout the organization, which relieves you, the entrepreneur, of the need to be involved in every situation. And the outcome? A degree of productivity and a loyalty to the enterprise that money can’t buy — in other words, found money.

More like this: Talent and HR

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