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The Art of Balance: Cultivating a Sustainable Workplace

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With the three key ingredients of trust, conversation, and flexibility, organizations can take meaningful steps toward easing the work/life issues plaguing the American workforce.

Work/life balance discussions have taken on a new urgency lately, thanks in large part to Arianna Huffington’s bestselling book, “Thrive.” The book begins with her personal “wake-up call.” She found herself lying in a pool of blood after collapsing from exhaustion and lack of sleep. Her demanding and lucrative career overpowered her—the weight eventually crushing her ability to keep up.

While this is a dramatic and high-profile example, this same scenario plays out day after day with average Joes and Janes. We may not crumple to our knees like Arianna, but the upward spike of stress reported by employees is sobering. And slowly, but surely, it’s taking a toll.

The third annual 2013 Work Stress Survey, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Everest College, found that 83 percent of Americans are stressed at work. One of the top stressors? Poor work/life balance.

In Fierce, Inc.’s 2014 Having It All Survey, which examined professional women’s attitudes about work/life balance, 70 percent of women reported being stressed, with nearly half experiencing stress-related health issues, such as loss of sleep (45 percent), weight gain (45 percent), and depression (34.5 percent).

The impact is so strong that 1 in 5 women, according to the Fierce survey, reported leaving a more lucrative job for one that supported better work/life balance. And if you believes this issue is a “girl thing,” think again. Just take ex-MongoDB CEO Max Schireson as a recent example. He quit his role as CEO to spend more time with his family, finding the demands of his job too much to support both work and home life.

If corporations haven’t gotten the memo yet, their time is running out. While some may prefer that this issue disappear, it won’t. It has sprung forth yet again as our society gets further and further caught up in trying to run at the rate of technology and, subsequently, pays the price. And while we can replace the hard drive in a computer, there is no replacing a company’s most valuable asset—the hearts and minds of its employees.

Here are three key ingredients to cultivating a workplace that fosters more balance and sustains long-term health for both the business and its workforce. And as with all things, it begins with trust.

1. Without trust, there is nothing. Trust is BIG. Employees crave it, employers must give it, and people require it as a fundamental component to all relationships. Without it, there is hand-holding, micro-managing, clock-watching, and side-glancing paranoia. Decisions are made behind closed doors, people whisper at the water cooler, and a world of energy is spent paving every road in “Worst Case Scenario Land.” In short, we spend our time focused on how to avoid failure or catching someone doing wrong rather than looking for possibilities, success, and spontaneous innovation.

In the “trustless” environment, corporations are hamstrung when it comes to affording employees work/life balance because to give balance, one must have balance—balance of trust between management and staff, staff and leadership. Cultures of deep-seated personal accountability must replace command-and-control dictatorships.

Building a foundation of trust at all levels, in every direction, is the launching point for creating a balanced workplace and is what’s needed to sustain it over time. To establish trust, one must choose trust. Trust is a choice—a belief—that resides within each individual and is his or hers to give. It starts from the top, and when trust is given, much is granted in return.

2. Have the conversations, and keep having them. Once trust has been established, have conversations that identify what employees need in order to experience better work/life balance. In one-on-ones, ask where the challenges are and request recommendations for resolving them. Ask what the company is doing nowthat’s helpful and how it could be made more helpful. Lean in and get curious. The solution (or solutions) may be much simpler than imagined, as we often tend to over-correct for situations that merely need a small modification.

Pull together a work/life committee made up of cross-functional and cross-departmental representatives. Submit the themes occurring in one-on-one conversations and task the committee with prioritizing, proposing solutions, and partnering with leadership to execute any new policies and/or cultural shifts that need to occur. As with all committees, ensure the work/life committee continues to meet on a regular basis to stay current with employee needs. Rotate in new members so fresh perspectives are routinely made available to the group. Peer groups also can give working parents, or individuals tasked with greater life responsibilities, an opportunity to share solutions and strategies for overcoming work/life issues outside of the company.

3. Reach beyond your limits and flex your flexibility. More than likely, a request for greater flexibility will be a common theme in your work/life conversations. After all, life doesn’t happen on a Tuesday nor does it occur conveniently between the hours of 9 and 5. Life happens when it does. It’s the nature of the beast, warts and all, so it’s best to adopt a strategy that embraces reality rather than ignores it.

Some highly adopted and emerging trends are listed below as options to consider. All of these address work/life issues and, on their own or together, will cover much ground in providing employees a less stressed, more engaged environment—both of which come with higher profits and lower turnover.

1. Flexible hours. A wide variety of office positions have no real need to be religiously staffed during specific hours, such as 8 to 5. Instead, there may be core hours where overlap with other team members is crucial but, outside of this, mandating an 8 a.m. start time is without much purpose and is more an act of old policies unvisited.

Evaluate all positions and identify core hours and the associated tolerance for flexible hours. Offering employees a grace period around when they need to be physically present in the office allows for life to sporadically bleed outside the margins into work, without causing undue stress.

2. Telecommuting. Hand in hand with flex hours, telecommuting is a wonderful and practical option to give employees. Thanks to technology, employees can still participate in meetings while getting work done (sometimes even more!) when in the rather calm and controlled environment of home.

Here again, assess which positions would be a good fit for working remotely and set clear expectations such as response time, indication of availability, and any specific days of the week where presence in the office is preferred due to weekly team meetings, etc.

3. Unlimited PTO. Perhaps the pièce de résistance of work/life policies is adapting an unlimited vacation “non-policy.” The latest high-profile CEO to roll this out is Richard Branson. He, like other CEOs, has observed the higher profits, morale, and productivity that the pioneering CEOs have experienced since implementing this bold policy.

Of all policies, this one requires the most trust and asks employees to be highly accountable to themselves, their peers, and their company. And when it works, it works like a charm. Ensure employees understand the goals and objectives they are responsible for delivering and communicate the expectation that they may take time off when they feel their absence will not damage the business, the team, or their careers.

While there may be a lot of initial fear around implementing this policy, most companies find they actually need to encourage employees to take more vacation! When trust is handed over, people step up in equal amounts.

With the three key ingredients of trust, conversation, and flexibility, organizations can take meaningful steps toward easing the work/life issues plaguing the American workforce. Companies that begin now will have a tremendous leg up on those that continue to merely pay lip service to the cause. This issue isn’t going away. It’s time to get out in front of it before employees lose patience and take their talent elsewhere.

This article was originally published on and was written by [former] Halley Bock, President and CEO, Fierce, Inc.


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