Create a state-of-the-art work/life program

By Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection. Adapted from The Eleven Essential Steps to Designing a Successful Work-Life Program.

Over the years, my colleagues and I at Work & Family Connection have learned that it's certainly possible to casually implement a few programs that support employees' work/life balance and effectiveness. You can slip in some time-saving resources, introduce dependent-care assistance and supportive policies, or even try some flexible work options.

But if it's a cultural change you're after at your company — in other words, a successful and comprehensive work/life program in which everyone participates with no penalty — it must be the result of an inclusive process.

The view from the corner office, the view from the mailroom

What do we mean by "inclusive"? We mean everyone is represented, from top management to the lowest-paid hourly worker.

Of course, the process begins with getting buy-in from management to even put your foot in the water. In other words, you may have to build and present a business case to begin your efforts. In most cases, the effort to create a work/life balance vision requires a champion, someone or a group of people who can create a vision that's so clear that everyone in the organization can see how they (and the company) might be better off than they were before if the vision were to become a reality. (And if you look around your organization and don't see a champion, it may be you.)

Once you've got the green light from the top, you're ready to form a representative task force, headed up, most likely, by your vision champion. Your task force will be charged with analyzing your current programs and policies and asking employees — in surveys and focus groups — whether those programs and policies are doing the job they were intended to do. The task force will try to assess what employees at the company need in order for their lives to be more livable and still get the job done, what the impact will be if they get it — and what it will be if they don't.

Specific questions posed to staff might be designed to reveal:

  • How employees treat each other.
  • How supervisors treat employees.
  • How employees feel about the company.
  • The message that the company's policies send to employees.
  • How managers react to flexibility.
  • What programs are already in place to support employees as they handle their home/life responsibilities, how well these programs are used, and what's missing.
  • Whether employees feel they are committed, engaged, treated like adults, and helped to achieve their full potential.

Your task force will also find out what resources are offered in your community. Finally, the task force will organize the data and design and present its recommendations to management.

Bringing the vision into focus

Of course, once a vision is articulated, there's still the matter of implementing it — that is, showing everyone involved what's in it for them if they participate.

Why? Because implementing a work/life balance vision means change. A wise person once said that the only people who like change are wet babies. We might add that those who can easily see that they'll be better off than they were before will also embrace it.

A sample vision

Recently, Work & Family Connection worked with an organization that is committed to becoming one of the world's premier companies in its field. The organization's managers told us that they wanted their employees to be uniquely fulfilled, free from distracting tensions at home and enthusiastically striving toward mutual goals at work. That gave us the idea for a picture of a visionary company.

What follows is that picture. Read it over, discuss it with your task force members, and use it to inspire your own vision of your company's future — a future that includes a comprehensive work/life program.

ShowA visionary employer

Employees at our company are both trustworthy and trusted. They are valued as worthy contributors. Whether senior management or entry-level employees, people are treated with equal respect. They give support where support is needed and accept assistance when it's called for.

Employees enthusiastically support and are dedicated to the company mission. All divisions of our company share a common purpose. All our employees feel responsible for achieving the company's goals, and all share in the celebration, recognition, and rewards when those goals are achieved.

The company publicly and repeatedly declares its commitment to its employees, and it acts on that commitment. Inherent in its culture are encouragement, empowerment, and excitement. Teamwork creates close relationships, but the need for personal fulfillment is never minimized.

Employees are encouraged to experience a full and rewarding life outside the company, as well as experience shared rewards for excellence within the company.

ShowCulture and climate

Management models the behavior changes implicit in this cultural transformation and "walks its talk" by providing numerous training and development opportunities. A mentoring program matches executives with employees, encouraging mutual trust and shared experience. Everyone who wants one has a career path.

Employees at every level are required to take part in programs that help them learn to be more responsible and to understand and be sensitive to the issues of others. Ongoing training teaches respect for diversity and shared contribution and teaches the importance of individuals' personal responsibilities. No one is given the job of supervising others until they have had the opportunity to complete the required management training program.

Support groups have been formed so that managers and supervisors can share their successes with others and receive ongoing help with difficult situations. Employees are asked to regularly evaluate their supervisors' ability to manage them with sensitivity and skill, and incentives for those supervisors encourage improved performance. Special and intensive classes are offered to those who receive low ratings, and those who fail to meet improvement goals are relieved of supervisory duties.

ShowWork practices

Flexibility is a given at this company, and a job here is considered to be a group of tasks rather than a place one goes to work. Each job is designed and redesigned to fit and maximize the employee's skills, career goals, and personal situation. Flexible work arrangements include flextime, reduced hours, compressed workweek, job sharing, and telecommuting. Employees also enjoy daily flexibility.

Managers are trained to set goals carefully with individuals and teams, and they evaluate performance based on results rather than on the hours that employees are at their desks. There is give-and-take, and when seasonal business pressures increase, employees do what it takes to get the job done.

One-fourth of the workforce now works from home, saving the company real estate and construction costs.


In this vision, a "zero-based" examination of previously existing policies has taken place and any outdated policies have been abolished. New policies are few in number, and they have as their guiding purpose to demonstrate and model the mutual trust and respect expected of all employees.

Policies have clear, straightforward goals. These goals include:

  • Increasing enthusiastic participation in achieving business goals, rather than just adding hours worked (the goal of many previous policies).
  • Enabling employees to have more control and power over their work.
  • Enabling employees to experience success consistently in both their work and their home lives.

Each policy has been carefully reviewed to make sure that there are no cultural "caste" or class system distinctions that make some employees feel like second-class citizens.

In our vision, the programmatic transformation of the company has been designed to produce a workforce free from distraction and worry about unmet home life responsibilities. Wherever possible, the company has done what it can to relieve that worry.

Employees have been made aware that the relationship between company and employees is now a two-way street. They are a team in every way — not just for the purpose of accomplishing the company's goals. Just as workers expect to contribute to the company's success, their company assists, wherever appropriate, in the smooth functioning of employees' lives at home.

Although some programs have been costly, senior management recognizes that in a world-class company, these are investments in the loyalty and productivity of the company's most precious commodity — its people. As with any business expense, these costs have been carefully monitored and the payoff evaluated by the coordinator who is employed to oversee the administration of and advocate for work/life programs.

Programs have been created to address the needs of employees at every stage of their lives. Those needs are continually observed, and when programs cease to meet a need or are found to be unsatisfactory for employees, the programs are revised or dropped.

Infant care is available at all facilities so that new mothers may return to work when they're physically ready and may continue to nurse. Because they can return to work when they are ready, neither new mothers nor new fathers are likely to experience the sadness that comes from having left their baby too soon. New parents are allowed to "phase in" their return to work, beginning with part-time work and gradually resuming their full-time roles.

Employees may "phase out" their way to retirement. Emergency or backup care is available in every community where the company has a facility. Many of these are at centers created in consortium with other companies.

The company works very closely with community resources and, in a special "family room," keeps updated, computerized information about all dependent care resources. This room also has private phones available for calling home and a comfortable private area with a refrigerator for new mothers to pump milk and store it when necessary.

The company has arranged with community agencies to provide summer care for employees' school-age children. Fees are subsidized based on a sliding scale.

Company retirees and other volunteers help employees' teenagers take on valuable community projects, one of which is to run errands, provide companionship, and make home repairs for employees' older relatives.

The company subsidizes both in-home and facility care for sick children. A geriatric caseworker is on staff to help employees who need assistance for their older relatives.

The company pays the fee of a national firm that counsels employees about colleges, available scholarships and how to apply for them, and how to request student aid.

Ongoing seminars held at all locations provide information and seminars offered by community experts on parenting, eldercare, single parenting, dating, relationships, managing time, managing money, coping with stress, and empty-nest syndrome. Regular discussion groups are facilitated by and for employees who have similar concerns.

Free, accessible, widely publicized, and totally confidential counseling helps employees deal with stress and depression and resolve problems, cutting the company's mental health costs and helping to keep morale high.

ShowCompany and community

Some of the company's charitable donations are earmarked for community projects with recommendations identified by an employee volunteer committee.

Employees are encouraged to volunteer in community organizations and are given a few hours of paid time off each month to do so.

Employees have established a network to assist each other and others in the community by exchanging merchandise, providing transportation in emergencies, sharing experiences when others could benefit, or caring for each other's children when they're sick or need care during the evenings.

ShowFlexible benefits

A flexible benefit program allows employees to choose benefits that fit their lifestyle. Together with a company-wide health promotion and wellness program, free yearly health screenings, free well-child care, and incentives for healthy behavior, the program is improving the health of employees and their families and saving the company a significant amount of money.

The company's paid leave days have been combined into a "paid leave bank" of days so that employees may use those days as they see fit — for their own illness, to care for sick children, to take vacations, or to refresh and restore their own mental health.

ShowCompany payoff

The company is reaping many benefits from its transformation. It has won several awards and has been widely publicized for its success. Local and national organizations have expressed their high regard for this outstanding corporate citizen.

Employees at every level feel proud to be a part of the organization. They consider it an honor and a privilege to contribute to such a high level of excellence. Their commitment and positive attitude are reflected in low turnover and in the company's productivity, creative culture, and bottom line.

About the author     Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection, is one of the nation's leading pioneers in the field of work/life balance. A founding board member of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, she has been helping companies, organizations, and governments transform their culture since 1984. She writes the publications Work & Family Newsbrief, the Trend Report, and the Manager's Quarterly and has authored several special reports and publications. Susan most recently published The Eleven Essential Steps to Designing a Successful Work-Life Program.

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