More and more families are finding it difficult to juggle the responsibilities of home and office. Find out what companies are doing to solve this problem, and learn what works and what doesn't.

June 09, 2015

A Time for Change

Bill Mattox is one of the lucky ones. When frequent work-related insomnia, an hour-long commute, and family responsibilities caused him to approach his boss with a white flag, his employer was willing to make some changes to help him get his life back. Now he does his job from an office in his home near Washington D.C., an example for workplace flexibility.

But Mattox knows his new arrangement didn't come about as part of his employer's desire to keep up with the trend toward friendlier work environments. Rather, it happened because he works for the Family Research Council -- a conservative organization advocating family interests in the formation of public policy.

Employees of other companies have not been so lucky, Mattox acknowledges. In fact, despite a decade of discussion about options in workplaces, and the well-meaning efforts of many employers, all is not yet well on America's "family-friendly" front.

Across the country from Mattox is San Francisco's New Ways to Work, a consulting firm. Codirector Suzanne Smith questions whether today's workforce -- since the creation of policies such as job-sharing, unpaid leave, flextime and compressed work weeks -- is, in fact, better off than it was a decade or two ago.

In many cases, flexible work options have resulted in little more than a trade-off in workplace problems. In other instances, good intentions have all but backfired.

Finding Solutions

People want more time tospend with family.

Finding solutions is no easy matter, acknowledges Candi Lange, manager of Work/Life Strategy at Eli Lilly and Company. The Indianapolis pharmaceutical manufacturer has long been regarded as a leader in establishing family-friendly workplaces.

"In the past, though, we defined what was a good place to work by what was considered the traditional family and the traditional workday," Lange says. "Our standard working hours, which allow employees to be able to come in at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 4:15 p.m., were considered 'family-friendly' when the hours were voted on by employees in the 1950s, because you had more time at home with your family in the evening. Where we lost sight over time was that the workforce changed."

To their surprise, management discovered the well-meaning program was in fact causing a hardship for people with school-aged children. Actually, it would be easier for those workers to put their children on the school bus and then start their workday a little bit later.

Eli Lilly also caught itself assuming it knew what programs or benefits were in their staff's best interests, Lange adds. A survey asking what employees really needed and wanted opened their eyes.

Now the company offers sports physicals, summer science camps, and school-vacation programs for kids; fitness centers; on-site dry cleaning and shoe repair shops; a convenience store and a "ready-to-serve" take-home food store; adoption assistance; single-parent and elder-care resource groups; and educational leaves.

Managers of Eli Lilly's flexible work arrangements have learned to monitor performance by production output, rather than time in the office.

"We trust employees with so much, why not trust them to come and go at a time that works best for them?" says Lange.

So is corporate America becoming one big family? Not quite. While progress has been made, with companies like Eli Lilly leading the way, Mattox cautions that good results usually come when the changes combine the smartest business methods with what makes the most sense for families.

"The strategies that have not been successful are those in which the corporation has sought to take on responsibilities that traditionally have been seen as family responsibilities," Mattox says.

The prime example is the provision of relatively costly corporate on-site day care. Actually, many employees would rather be provided other benefits, he says.

Eyebrows raise when Mattox dares to suggest there are negatives to a "family-friendly" workplace attitude. But he has seen frequent internal division among employees because of such policies. Workers who don't have families, for example, don't benefit from such company perks as day-care centers or family medical leave. For them, perhaps an on-site fitness center, higher wages, or sabbatical opportunity would be more appreciated.

"Unless there is attention given to that type of equity, you often breed resentment," Mattox says. "I think early on, many of those who advocated family-friendly practices only concerned themselves with certain types of workers and didn't consider the needs of everyone."

Even the much-heralded Family Medical Leave has the potential to cause problems, he cautions. Often one employee's absence puts an extra load on others.

"I don't want to see workers end up suffering when they return because there are internal resentments, nor do I want to see the coworkers who are being dumped on suffer. Children benefit from time with their parents when they are babies-and when they are older. Policies that make it easier for new parents to take family leave shouldn't make it harder for older parents to get off work in time to coach their child's soccer team," Mattox says.

Smith, of New Ways to Work, also sees new dilemmas arising from current corporate trends.

"With all the downsizing, the people who are left are working longer hours. Now we're finding that stress has become one of the big problems for managers," Smith says. "When it comes down to the bottom line, I think many people feel they're losing the game. Practically everybody working feels like they're working faster and that they don't have as much support on the home front."

What Is a Workday?

The very definition of a workday is changing. The time aspect is becoming a societal problem that needs to be addressed, she believes. Somehow, we thought we could have it all. But that isn't necessarily true when we keep expanding our definition of "it all." "We need to start talking about what individuals, community, and society need time for," Smith says.

When Mattox switched from commuting to a business office to working in his home, he salvaged the equivalent of almost two full workdays.

"I now have 15 hours at my disposal that I didn't used to have. I used to drive an hour each way, and took an hour at lunch. Some of those hours are devoted to family. But some of those 15 hours are also being put into productive work at my home office, because I have greater control of my schedule."

Now if he can't sleep, Mattox goes downstairs to work. Free from distractions, he finds that he's more productive in the middle of the night. He delights in sending e-mails when on-line traffic is down. But he knows his arrangement wouldn't suit every worker -- or every employer.

"It is quite possible for me, in my line of work, to operate here in my basement," Mattox says. "But if I were working at Ford or General Motors, I couldn't assemble cars in my basement."

That's why one-size-fits-all workplace options are rarely successful, he says. Instead, companies must design programs that are flexible enough to meet the needs of the employer and the worker.

Change Is Slow

But good family-friendly programs have been slow to evolve. Smith recently worked with a group still fighting for more bathroom breaks for pregnant women. "So many of us thought we had gotten beyond that in most places, and things like this bring us up short," says Smith.

"Certainly awareness of employee needs is increasing, but I would say there's still a lot of room to grow in numbers of companies that are addressing these issues," says Lange of Eli Lilly and Company.

Mattox dreams of "radical change tomorrow," but he knows that won't -- and probably shouldn't -- happen.

"Realistically, it's better to move slowly in the right direction than try to shift things too dramatically overnight and end up creating a backlash," he says.

Despite the stumblings, family-friendly workplaces hold promise for the future.

"I am a long-term optimist," Mattox says. "I think the benefits of flexible workplace arrangements will win out, but only because they make good business sense and not because corporations want to be nice guys. Mine is an optimism born out of the belief that these strategies are good for the bottom line, and that will be what ultimately drives change."


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