A Work Strategy for a Good Life: Attracting and Keeping the Best

Oct 23, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Do you have a strategy for a good life? Can you offer prospective employees a path to develop their own strategy? Have you decided what part work plays in your life and what engages you?

I have been noodling for quite some time over the work/life balance movement. I call it a movement because it really was not even something anyone mentioned or thought about when I entered the workforce in the 1970s. It has come about over the past 15 years and has swept corporate America and the world.

I can’t think of any organization that has not had to change policies or at least address its employees on the issue of work/life balance. Perhaps it emerged because more Gen X employees moved into leadership positions and were more aware of the precariousness of employment and about how quickly corporate can swing from breakneck hiring to layoffs.

But whatever the causes, the issues involved are core to whether people accept offers, stay with an organization, or decide to work for themselves.

Over the past few weeks most recruiters have had to spend some time thinking about their own employment situation and assessing its relative security, engagement, and continuity. They have also had to deal with reluctant candidates, uncertain retirees, and fearful employees. How we think about work is fundamental to almost everything else we do.

The work/life balance movement is based on set of assumptions that aren’t questioned very often, yet are very strange from the perspective of a Baby Boomer such as myself or from that of anyone who has studied or thought about the history of work.

If I were to state the assumptions that underlie the work/life balance movement, they would go something like this: Work is something we do for money, is generally not very enjoyable, and interferes with more important things like family. Work, therefore, should be regulated and time with our families should be mandatory. The work/life balance cause assumes a more or less digital world: work is on or off, family is on or off.

Yet, for centuries work and life were co-joined. Men toiled in fields, small shops, bazaars, and at home without paychecks, labor laws, or a day off. Women and men often shared skills and children were almost always part of the working and life equation as soon as they were old enough.

Work might not have been fun in our modern sense, but it was a family activity and it was the fabric of life. Most people chose to do something they liked, or at least something that provided them food and shelter and employed members of their family. Even learning was a family activity and fathers and sons often co-invented things or passed their knowledge to each succeeding generation.

The modern separation mindset is new and is a result of the physical isolation of work in factories and offices. It is the result of physical and mental separation from family. It is the result of over specialization to the point where your spouse cannot understand what work you do.

Yet I see that the Gen Y folks, the Millennials, seem to have an intuitive understanding that you should seek out work you care about. They are rejecting the work/life notions, much to the chagrin of their elder Gen X colleagues. Gen Y tends to look for work they are passionate about and then they tend to work in ways foreign to Gen X. They take any sense of balance away and may work for days without a stop or not work much at all for some time. They try to choose meaningful and interesting work and embrace it with a passion only seen once in a while with Gen X or Baby Boomers.

In order to most effectively deal with the questions this economic turmoil raises, be able to answer these questions:

Question #1: If I am able to make an adequate living doing whatever I am now doing, what does your organization offer me beyond that?

You should have a clear understanding of the contributions employees can make to society or to fulfilling an employee’s long term career goals. Every recruiter should encourage the organization to commit to funding and supporting social and environmental improvements and activities. Google, for example, allows employees paid time to work for charitable organizations on a regular basis.

Question #2: Can you accommodate my preferred work style?

Many younger employees and also many Gen X and Baby Boomer workers are asking for flexible working schedules and telecommuting opportunities. These will be core benefits offered by successful organizations over the next decade. Without these you will find it very hard to hire and retain your most productive and valuable people. As soon as any competitor offers them an opportunity for these, they will leave you.

Question #3: What opportunities are there for me to fulfill my life ambitions here?

Work is no longer all about the employee doing things only for the organization. It is also about what the organization is doing for the individual. Some corporations offer employees college programs in areas that have nothing to do with work. For example, some pay for things like nursing school or law school while the employee is doing some totally different type of work.

Others offer cross-functional movement and provide the training and coaching needed to make the person successful. And they make this a significant part of the employment experience, not just a perk for the privileged few.

This is the out-of-the-box stuff that will keep the best people, at least for awhile, and improve the productivity and engagement of everyone.

I am not the only one predicting that it will be increasingly difficult to convince younger people to work for large corporations unless they have more input to the type of work and the conditions they work under. As work returns slowly to individuals, entrepreneurs, small shops, and small organizations, we will see more and more integration between work and life. More spouses will work together and more children will be part of that work. The days of specialization, physical separation, and mental isolation are ending, I think and hope. We have traversed across a century of change to return to where we started.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.