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The Work-Life Blur

Thanks to cell phones, video conferencing and remote access, most office jobs don’t really need to be done in the office anymore. The ability to plug in anytime, anywhere, is a huge benefit for workers who are looking for a flexible schedule and the freedom to work how and where they want. But with that added flexibility comes some serious risks. When employees are always accessible, the lines between work life and personal life can easily get blurred, both for workers and their bosses. If not monitored closely, what starts as flexibility can quickly end up as burnout.

According to recent data from the nonprofit human resources association WorldatWork, this “always on” culture has resulted in Americans working longer hours, skipping breaks and lunches, and working more weekends. It’s not surprising that more than half of all U.S. workers say they are feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work.

“We have an imbalance in work life currently,” says Monica Whalen, president and CEO of Employers Council, a Utah company that provides HR and employment law support to the business community. “The concern from an HR perspective is retaining your talent and keeping them engaged.”

Slow Burn

For most workers, burnout is a process rather than an event. “Sometimes employees can get burned out without even noticing that they’re on the road to burnout,” says Joe Staples, chief marketing officer at Lehi-based Workfront.

The company recently surveyed more than 2,000 adults about work/life balance. The data revealed that more than 50 percent of employees think technology has ruined family dinner because employers or clients can demand responses at any hour.

“Little things, like needing to respond to an email during family dinner time, might not feel like that big of a deal. But your spouse thinks it’s a big deal and your kids are wondering why you’re doing it. Little by little, that can lead to burnout,” says Staples.
Workers are also dealing with much bigger interruptions than calls during dinner. “Fifty-one percent of [survey] respondents also said they’d missed a life event because of work. That’s not a kid’s soccer practice—it’s an anniversary or a birthday or something fairly big,” he says. “Those are the things that spark work/life imbalance. If those kinds of things are happening, you’re not likely to end up in a good place.”

Though some employers have a blatant disregard for workers’ work/life balance, he says, most just don’t think about the negative long-term effects of regular encroachments upon personal time.

“When it comes to burnout, there are two classes of employers. There are those who say, ‘This is just the way we operate; we churn and burn people and when they leave, we’ll just hire someone else and do the same thing,’” Staples explains. “But that’s a pretty poor way to run a business.”

Others just don’t take the time to take to acknowledge or address it. “If [employers] recognized the signs of burnout, fatigue and low morale—and if they made some adjustments—over the long-term life of their business, they would save a lot of money,” he says. “It’s expensive to hire new employees and it’s expensive to have vacant spots as you’re looking for new employees.”

Give and Take

When it comes to work/life balance, Staples says employees are looking for two things: flexibility and trust. Flexibility means understanding there are things that happen in an employee’s workday that may not have much to do with work—whether it’s a dentist appointment, a kid’s dance recital or just an errand that needs to be run. The trust comes when employers allow their staff to find the right way to get the work done.

“It doesn’t work for employers to say, ‘I’ll balance you—from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. you work, and from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. the next morning, you can have the rest of your life,” he says. “Employers can help create balance by allowing the work life and the personal life to blend together. By giving that flexibility, you solve a lot of the burnout problem.”

But Staples says that it’s also important to remember that flexibility and trust must go both ways. “Too often, employees say, ‘I should be able to coach my kid’s lacrosse team and leave early every Wednesday for practice,’ but when the employer says, ‘I’m under a crunch and I need you to work this Saturday,’ the employee throws up his arms and says, ‘You’re encroaching on my work/life balance!’”

He adds, “It is a balance. That means it needs to go both ways. It’s not realistic for the employee to say, ‘You need to be flexible with me, but I won’t be flexible with you.’ When it works well, it’s when it goes both ways—when employers trust employees with more flexibility and when the employees give some of that back when the employer needs it.”

On the Clock

Though it’s important that both employers and employees are flexible, it’s not about counting hours. “Employees have a job they have to do. Sometimes that means they need to work late or come in early to get the work done,” Staples says. “And then there are other times when the workload is lighter and they can leave early or do something for their personal life.”

He says it’s “old-school thinking” to demand that if an employee needs to leave an hour early one day, she has to come in an hour earlier the next day. “It’s so much more effective when the employer says, ‘I trust you. You have a job to do, and I expect you to do that job and get your work done … If I see any abuse, we’ll sit down and talk about it.’ It’s more about getting the work done than putting in the hours.”

When the focus is on the work and not how long it takes to do it, people feel trusted and empowered, two components of a strong workplace culture, Staples says.

Worrying less about hours is especially important when dealing with remote employees. “I have a very valued employee who telecommutes from Florida,” Whalen shares. “Admittedly, it took me a while to get used to the idea of measuring success by focusing on the work that gets done and not how many hours this employee spends working. It does require a paradigm shift from holding people accountable by punching the clock versus what are they able to deliver in terms of productivity.”

Recent data from the Society for Human Resources Management shows that productivity isn’t an issue for remote employees. In fact, companies report that their telecommuting employees are 26 percent more productive now than when they worked in the office full time. Absenteeism among those employees has also dropped by 32 percent.

“Telecommuting has been around for a few decades and data would indicate that we’ve finally figured it out and shifted our mindset enough to where it is really working for a large segment of employers,” Whalen says.

On the Team

Though telecommuting is becoming more popular—around 20 percent of Utah companies allow it—it may not be the best solution for every business.

“I know it’s a buzzword and there are a lot of people who are advocates of it, but we’re not very big on the idea of remote work,” says Brett Allred, chief operating officer at Nuvi, a Utah-based social media listening and analytics software company.

“It’s like being on a sports team,” he says. “Coming into the office everyday is like showing up to practice. You don’t practice at home and then just show up for the game. Everyone practices and works together and then when game time comes, you’ve got a good strong team.”

Though Nuvi once had quite a few remote workers, they’ve cut back on the practice. “I think you lose a lot of context when you’re working remote,” Allred explains. “There are a lot of great communication tools—email, SMS, chat, video conferencing. But nothing is as good as the broadband human-to-human communication channel.”

Though a lot of Nuvi’s software development efforts are individual, there is also a very important team component. “That’s why we want them in the office, for the conversation and the context about the things that are going on,” he says. “And it’s hard to Skype someone in every time an off-of-the-cuff conversation kicks off.”
In addition to context, Allred worries that remote workers also miss out on the camaraderie that is formed in the office. “We just ended Q2. We had a good quarter and we were excited about it, so everyone had the chance to putt [for a chance] to win a hundred bucks. Somebody makes the putt and the 30 people in the room are screaming—someone just won a hundred bucks! You don’t get that camaraderie at home. People like to be here because they want to be part of the culture.”

Unlimited Work
Nuvi has also decided against another workplace buzzword: Unlimited PTO. Though a number of high-profile tech companies like Netflix, Zynga and Evernote have chosen to give their employees as much vacation time as they want, Allred says the idea is not all it’s cracked up to be.

“I worked at a company before Nuvi where I was given three weeks of vacation, which I considered to be part of my compensation,” Allred recalls. “Six months later, they got rid of PTO for unlimited vacation—on the honor system, where you were accountable to your peers.
“It felt like because I had unlimited vacation, I had no vacation,” he says. “When I had a set amount of time, it was part of my compensation. I could take those 15 days off because I’d earned them. When it was unlimited, I was like, ‘Oh, man, is the team going to think I’m slacking if I take a day off or a week off to go on vacation with my family?’”

Instead, Nuvi offers its employee a set amount of time off, though Allred says it’s more a guideline than a strict rule. “If one of our workers is three or four days over on their PTO for the year, we’re not going to dock their pay or penalize them. But at least the guideline is there so people have some context to how they should behave,” he says.

Workfront, however, decided to implement unlimited PTO earlier this year. “We tell our people, ‘You have a job to do. I don’t need to watch your vacation hours. Just make sure I’m aware of your plans and then self-govern,” Staples says.

So far, the company has seen good results from this approach. “Employees appreciate it and they’re more productive when they feel like they have a good work/life balance. So we trust them and keep an eye on it. It’s been a really good benefit for us.”

Regardless of how a company decides to implement policies or procedures, if they want to succeed, they will need to continue to find solutions that make life easier for their employees, Whalen says. “My sense is that as the Utah economy grows and diversifies, and as we attract more out-of-state companies, we’ll need to adopt more flexibility around work and how it’s accomplished.”

Luckily, the Utah business community is headed in the right direction, she says. “I do sense that Utah employers are creating more flexible options than they have in the past.”