Tipping the work/life balance

In an effort to retain more of their women employees, many companies implement work/life balance policies such as flexible working hours, childcare facilities at the office, and options for telecommuting. Many studies have shown that women, in particular, report stress related to the conflict between work and family and these kinds of initiatives are supposed to help employees better manage home and professional demands.

But the problem is these policies do not always work as intended. According to new research by Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, associate professor of management at Rouen Business School, having these human resource policies in place is one thing, but companies also need to possess a supportive culture that encourages employees to take advantage of them. She told me recently:

“Employees aren’t using the policies because they feel that if they did it would negatively impact their career. They feel that if they were to say, take a leave or go part-time, they would not be conforming to the ideals of a loyal committed worker, and it would [harm their opportunities for advancement.] Quite frankly, the consensus in the work/life community is that work/life doesn’t work.”

Ollier-Malaterre began her career at Accenture. It continually struck her that that in the consulting business, women dominated the junior level, but at the manager and principal level, “women started to disappear”.

“There are so many organisations that are struggling to retain women because they are ignoring the fact that women have priorities other than work. Companies can’t expect their employees to be fully available, and fully committed at every stage of their lives.”

Based on her experience, Ollier-Malaterre, who did her post-doctoral research at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, says she wanted to explore “work/life support and culture”.

Her latest paper on the subject is published in a recent issue of the Journal of Vocational Behaviour. She found that the best ways an employers can support employees is by providing job security, an individualised approach to workload and working hours, and by cultivating an encouraging and understanding environment.

“Job security helps employees feel supported. What good is on-site childcare if you’re worried about losing your job? Another important attribute is the fit between employees’ needs and the work options available to them. Companies need to really tackle the organisation of work – the way they assign workload, and the norms around typical working hours. Organisations need to consider each employee as a whole person, not just one of its resources.

“And we’ve known for a long time that a supportive supervisor is very important. But a newer line of research is that employees need workgroup support. They need understanding coworkers. If the guy in the cubicle next door says to you: ‘Oh, leaving early, are we? That’s not a signal to the employee that she is being supported.”

Of course this is all easier said than done. But it does appear that if companies are serious about retaining more of their female talent, they need to go beyond just providing human resources programmes. Otherwise employees will perceive them merely as lip service.

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