Now that more than one-third of workers work from home, work-life balance is increasingly important for employers because it minimizes stress and helps workers stay healthy, happy, and productive.
What can employers do to improve work-life balance?
Improving work-life balance starts by giving employees control over their work, says Blake E. Ashforth, Regents' Professor and Horace Steele Arizona Heritage Chair at the W. P. Carey School of Management and Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University.
The essential work-life ingredients are deceptively simple, Ashforth says. "Generally, employee engagement and work-life balance happen when employees feel that they've got the trust, clarity, resources, and support to go ahead and do their own thing. If your employees have the training and the skills, turn them loose and trust them to do the job that you hired them for."
Here are some critical steps to improve work-life balance for employees.
Talk with your employees and listen to their responses
Fran Rose, who runs her own Detroit-based trucking company, Triad Transportation, has 35 years of experience managing remote operations. She says ensuring that employees successfully prioritize the demands of their job and that of their personal life is an ongoing balancing act.
Rose manages the operation primarily by texting and occasionally via phone. As long as drivers get the job done and the customers are pleased, "I have absolutely no need to talk to my drivers at all," she says.
It's a well-oiled machine—except when it's not. That's when the importance of work-life balance and support is evident, even in a business where employees have famously valued their independence and ability to be free spirits.
"There comes a time when the drivers do want to talk to you. I think they reach a point where they feel like it's so impersonal that they just need to hear my voice," Rose says. Other times it is because a problem overwhelms their abilities to get the job done. "One of my drivers has adopted his grandchildren because his daughter (struggled with drug addiction). While he was in the course of doing this, there was a lot of angst attached," Rose said.
She offered him some time off to handle the situation. That wasn't just Rose being nice. If a trucker is frustrated and distracted, it may affect his driving in dangerous ways or cause him to blow up at a customer. "I tell drivers, if there's some problem going on in your personal life, call me and tell me about it. We'll try to see what we can do to help you resolve it."
If you're in charge, be available
Another frustrating circumstance for remote employees is being unable to contact someone with the knowledge and authority to answer a question or decide, Ashforth says. "For some remote workers, it's out of sight, out of mind. It's important that remote workers feel like they actually do have a lifeline into the company—that there is someone who is actively listening and supporting."
Be prepared to take the heat
Remote workers are often much more likely than those in the office to deal directly with customers. Sometimes, that can be frustrating, especially when there is nobody to turn to immediately for guidance. "I tell drivers if you have an issue with a customer, please, do not take it out on them. Call me, and I'll get to the bottom of it. I may not be able to immediately control the problem, but I can find out how to get it controlled," Rose says.
Make sure employees have the tools they need
Employees need adequate technology and to be trained to use it. This sounds obvious, but Ashforth says it isn't guaranteed in many companies. He points to an employee who had a crowded home situation. The need to keep people out of the employee's work area was a significant challenge and made the employee and his family unhappy. The worker was talented, but his company refused to give him a stipend for equipment or access to a co-working space. "It's amazing how often remote workers have fewer resources than they need," he says.
Ensure that workers have opportunities to grow and improve
"Managers can easily overlook the need to give remote workers the opportunities for training and visibility that help them take on more responsibility, be promoted and earn more—and do even greater things for the company," says Timothy D. Golden, professor of management at the Lally School of Management, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
"The new challenge for a manager is to make sure he or she provides growth opportunities equally to remote employees and in-office workers." Golden acknowledges that this can be difficult because it is much easier to turn to the worker in the next cubicle. "A manager has to be attuned to the issue."
Keep remote co-workers socially engaged
"Managers need to make sure that employees feel they're part of a cohesive social environment and feel connected to co-workers and their boss. When work is remote, the opportunity for chit-chat is significantly different and sometimes reduced compared to in-office work, but the manager needs to make sure that social process occurs nonetheless," Golden says.
He recommends using technology like Zoom or WebEx to replace the face-to-face environment at least partially. "If you're just asking someone to do something simple and quick, send them an email or a text. But if you need to engage with them in a conversation so that you're sure they're understanding things., you will need a Zoom (platform) or something like that to allow some nonverbal cues to come through."
He also recommends structuring social time before or after regular meetings, so employees get to know the team and can judge the dynamics of the office place. "Ensure people have their video on as well as just their audio. Go around the Zoom room and ask employees questions. Make sure people are part of the discussion instead of just watching the discussion—that's a key distinction," he says.
Be culturally sensitive
How employees are compensated differs around the world. If you have international employees, even if you aren't subject to the laws of their country, employees will appreciate your company's regard for following what's customary. For instance, while the same holidays aren't celebrated worldwide, time off to celebrate whatever is celebrated is expected and goes a long way toward keeping employees happy.
Bonuses are another idea that is viewed differently around the world. In some places, they are expected—even legally mandated. Giving some employees a bonus and overlooking others is considered wrong in other areas. Understand what your employees think is customary and use that as a guideline.
Elizabeth Hanes, CEO of RN2Writer, an online training company for nurses, has decided that flexible paid time off is the best answer. While differing bonus amounts can be hard to hide, time off can be handled more discretely. Everybody gets a certain amount of time off, but workers who do the job remarkably well get additional paid days—and sometimes paid weeks off. "People seem to really like it," Hanes says.
Bottom line: Respect boundaries
It is great to give workers the flexibility to set their own schedules, but make sure that there are clearly defined times when work isn't expected. If an employee formally clocks out at 6 p.m. or has Thursday and Friday off, then let them have a life during that time—uninterrupted. Ashforth warns that nothing says, "'We don't care about your personal life' louder than a text at 3 a.m."