Balancing act: Training people to handle flexibility can help workers, companies
When I started my current job about three years ago, my first two days at work consisted of employee orientation. I was given all kinds of information about the company's history and philosophy, as well as specifics about policies, benefits and the like.
During the weeks after that orientation, I learned about my team and duties. I received training to help me complete tasks and meet the expectations of my employers.
However, something I've never received training for — in this job or any other — was how to manage a flexible schedule and build better work-life balance.
This probably seems like something everyone should figure out on their own. Why should an employer train workers how to deal with such things?
Well, I've learned over the years that building balance and managing flexibility don't come naturally to everyone, but I've seen almost everyone benefit from company efforts to promote more balanced lives.
The survey showed that 97 percent of workers said they had some form of work-life flexibility in 2013. (The national telephone survey of 556 full-time employed adults has a margin of error of 4 percent, and it is part of a biennial study first conducted in 2006.)
Flex+Strategy Group CEO Cali Williams Yost, a flexible workplace strategist and author, said in an email interview that of that 97 percent, only 40 percent received any training or guidance on how to use their flexibility.
"That means 57 percent of employees with flexibility are flying by the seat of their pants, so it's not surprising that 62 percent said they weren't able to use or improve the flexibility they had," Yost wrote in response to one of my questions. "And training made a significant difference. When you compare employees who received training and guidance with those who did not, those who received support to manage their work-life flexibility were significantly more likely to feel a greater sense of control and perceive a higher level of commitment to flexibility from their employer."
The latter point is significant. As I mentioned last week, the survey showed that only 46 percent of respondents described their employer's commitment to work-life flexibility as strong. Meanwhile, 20 percent said it was clear their company had reduced flexibility during the past year; 5 percent had "heard rumors or noticed signs" of a decreased commitment; and 20 percent said their employers are committed for now, but that could change.
Yost wrote that work-life flexibility training helps employees learn how to partner with a company to capture any available flexibility "and then use it to manage the way your work and the other parts of your life fit together. ...
"This includes day-to-day flexibility and formal flexible work plans. Because, as we found in the research, people have and use both types — 55 percent informal, occasional flexibility and 42 percent formal agreement upon arrangements. I believe work-life flexibility training should be part of the core competency curriculum in every organization for employees, managers and HR."
Such training is Yost's business, so it's natural that she would feel this way. But I believe she's on the right track here.
In her email, she wrote that one of her client companies decided to use a weekly practice she developed that gives employees a framework for using day-to-day, informal flexibility to manage their work-life balance "more intentionally." After six weeks, she wrote, all of the 40 participants said their productivity at work had either increased or stayed the same, while 92 percent said they were better able to prioritize their responsibilities and goals.
Furthermore, Yost wrote, 88 percent of the participants felt they more actively managed their work and personal responsibilities and goals; 81 percent said they were more likely to collaborate with others; and 73 percent said they were better able to gauge their capacity for all responsibilities.
Those are fairly positive results and the kind of numbers to which corporations should pay attention.
In tough economic times, I'm sure many CEOs and managers ask why they should make an effort on this kind of training when they're struggling just to keep their employees motivated and on-task from week to week. But I would argue that offering flexibility — and making sure workers are ready to handle it — is the kind of thing that builds the energy and focus companies need these days.
After all, the survey showed that 85 percent of respondents believe employee loyalty, health and performance suffer in workplaces that don't offer work-life flexibility.
Especially in times of ever-increasing workloads, that's a statistic companies can't afford to ignore.
"Everyone is having to do more with less, and I am not sure that's going to change anytime soon," Yost wrote in her email. "However, it's important to note that, according to our research, when people received training or guidance on how to manage their flexibility, their personal sense of control over their flexibility increased.
"Right now, only 40 percent of respondents said they were getting any kind of 'how-to' support, which could account for why people feel so overwhelmed. It's not just workload; it's how work and everything else fits together."
And that's the bottom line. Everyone seems busy and stressed these days, whether at work or at home. If a business can help its employees manage those challenges, it will have the kind of happy, productive workers it needs to succeed in today's economy.
It sounds trite, but in such a situation, it's possible for everyone to win. And that's what building work-life balance should be all about.