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Thursday, 28 October 2010

What is “work-life” anyway?

by Judy David Bloomfield

Jobs Vacancy, Employment, Job Vacancies

A simple question. A nagging reminder.

I was talking with a reporter the other week and she asked me, “Is it still called “family friendly”? I want to get at what helps people with the juggling…not all that other ‘stuff’.”

I said, no – the term “family friendly” isn’t used much anymore, and I informed the reporter that “work/life” is the most commonly used phrase these days. Yet I, for one, have never liked the term “work/life” much. That said, I have yet to come up with an alternative. I closely watch the words others use – balance, integration, navigation, effectiveness… I’m still searching. Waiting for that “Aha.”

What do you do?

When I read our industry newsletters, I feel so comfortable. We all speak the same language. Like traveling in another country and finding someone who speaks English. Easy.

But put me in a social situation where someone I’ve never met before asks me “what do you do?” and after 15 years of repeated opportunities to refine my reply, it’s rarely easy. My response sounds something like this: “I work with employers in the Bay Area who are interested in addressing work/life issues.” Then I get “the look” – those eyes that seem to say “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about, but say more.” So then I add, “You know, things like on-site child care, telecommuting, other flexible work arrangements…” then the click of recognition, and usually more conversation.

At a recent One Small Step symposium, our guest speaker Linda Roundtree encouraged our audience to always have your “elevator speech” ready – that is, your pitch for whenever you run into key players. It should be fast, energetic, compelling. It’s a basic part of a successful strategy for getting where you want to go. Important advice. I still want to take people for a walk around the block.

So back to this ‘what do you do?” question – I wonder, why don’t I have an easy answer? Why can’t my reply be simple and understood quickly? Do I just need to patient with this important change process and wait for more and more circles of people to become familiar with the concept of work/life and the kinds of things enlightened companies are doing? Or is there something inherently wrong about the term “work/life”?

Perhaps a more powerful term is waiting to be coined. One that will better capture – and advance - the changes we are seeking. One Small Step’s co-chair Phyllis Stewart Pires from Cisco Systems recently said to me, “We need to call work/life something different if we still want to be doing this in a few years.” I absolutely agree. But what exactly is the “this”?

Something different.

To find that other word or phrase – that something different - means fully grasping what it is we are doing. Earlier this year, One Small Step released a new edition of our guide for employers on child care options. The response has been strong – orders coming in from employers and advocates across the country. Child care is still an important piece of what we do, and rightly so because there is still so much more to do. But what about all the other “stuff”, as alluded to by that reporter? Well, it’s changing, that’s for sure. More interest these days in elder care and older workers. Continuing interest in telework and other flexible work options. More talk and progress around changing work environments. But to be honest, I’m not sure how to think about what “work/life” is anymore.

At One Small Step, we have an email benchmarking service we offer our members called “eSteps” – our members pose a topic and a few questions they have about it, and we poll our membership and summarize the responses. Over this past year, I’ve found myself often questioning the topics our members have raised. For example, Transition Services. Employee Privacy. Exit Interviews. Now are those topics “work/life”? I’ve found a work/life thread in all of them, but maybe it isn’t a thread…maybe work/life is becoming more of a lens through which we see and think about a wide range of business issues.

The other day a One Small Step member with a large international workforce contacted me for help. Supporting health and resilience in their workforce has become a major concern and gotten the attention of their executive officers. Signals are coming from every direction that their employees are overloaded, out of balance, fatigued and burnt out.

Sound familiar? Now here’s what I found intriguing: This member said, “We are not looking so much to compare our work/life programs and policies. We think that we have most work/life supports in place and it's our sense that our supervisors and employees are not complaining about these options. Rather we are interested in the message that best practice companies send and the behaviors that they engage in -- from top management to the supervisor and employee level -- that effectively helps employees to take care of themselves and honors their life outside of work, while dedicating their energy to making our company successful.”

Those messages and behaviors – are they work/life? Very much so, I think.

And I think Ellen Blizinsky of United Health Care’s Working Solutions, an active Partner of One Small Step, would say yes too. I was catching up with her the other day and found myself scribbling down something she said: “Work/life is a set of values, from the top, translated into initiatives.” I would add: messages, behaviors, and choices - choices that top executives make with business and employees and their families in mind (or not). And the every day choices that individuals make as they try to take care of themselves, honor their lives outside of work, and give their best to help their company succeed.


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