Want Engaged Employees? Give Them Work-Life Balance

Employees appreciated the flexibility and did their best not to abuse it.

Posted Jan 27, 2015

We live in a disengaged era.  Studies repeatedly show there’s an epidemic of employee disengagement, with some 7 in 10 employees not engaged—meaning not “emotionally committed” to the organizations they work for.  Meaning also that in all likelihood they’re not working at full productive capacity.  A few observations about the role of work-life balance as a key element of engagement after several decades of corporate management...

One of the surest ways to ensure you’ll have unproductive employees is to have their minds elsewhere.

One of the surest ways to ensure you’ll have productive employees is to have them focused on the here and now.

Which is where the importance of work-life balance comes in—and why it’s important to make management decisions that offer reasonable levels of work-life balance.

When an employee is at work, you want him or her to be focused on work.  Not on a problem at school, or a kid’s sporting event, or an ailing grandparent or a doctor’s appointment.  Ideally, you want them to be able to take care of what they need to outside of work so it doesn’t become an issue inside of work.

The power of flexibility - In my management experience, these “life”-related requests were, most of the time, modest, simple ones. Attend a daughter’s softball game.  Take a child or an aging parent to a medical appointment.  Go to a son’s school play.  Etcetera.  My answer was virtually always the same: “Will it cause any problems here at work, and will you still be able to do whatever is needed to stay on top of things?”   Assuming the answers were no and yes respectively, I was a pretty soft touch.  I’d invariably give my employees the space to work flexibly.

Over several decades I never once regretted it.  Naturally, any missed work has to get done.  If it doesn’t, it goes without saying you’re not fulfilling your management responsibilities.   And of course it’s incumbent on managers to be sure the work does get done.  Otherwise, you’re just being taken advantage of.    

I was often surprised and pleased by the emails I'd get at 10 or 11 p.m., passing along the day’s work that was completed late that night after time had been spent away from the office that day.

People appreciated the work-life flexibility and did their best not to abuse it so they could continue to enjoy it in the future.

Studies confirm that personal flexibility is extremely highly valued, as any experienced in-the-trenches manager knows.  A sizable percentage of employees will even choose it over higher pay.

In the end, what choice does a manager really have?  You tell a good employee no, they can’t go to that school event or that outside appointment… and it’s a fair bet their minds will be elsewhere.  They’ll subtly wish they were elsewhere.  They’ll be resentful.  They may well be less productive, giving 95 percent, say, rather than 105 percent. 

I didn't want an employee giving 95 percent, I'd much rather have 105.  Work-life balance can be elusive but it can also be a powerful benefit and motivator.

When I was in management I always said, “Pick your battles.”  Denying someone a reasonable level of work-life balance was never one of them.

*     *     *

Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).