Work Play Love

December 21st, 2010 by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

A point-by-point plan for achieving an ideal work-life balance.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Work-life balance has become a hot topic in recent years, especially for companies that want to attract, motivate, and retain top talent. Yet, as workplaces morph to reflect the realities of people’s lives beyond work, unresolved issues remain.

Overload. The movie title I parody, from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, is EAT Pray Love. But who has time to eat? Quick bites replace leisurely meals, as work threatens to overwhelm everything else. Productivity is measured; well-being is not. Workplace stress has health consequences, draining the economy in other ways even when companies show high profits. For working parents, primarily women, it can appear easier to opt out than to ease up. In addition to being flexible, companies could define work in modules, rather than as “full time” or not, and create metrics for life satisfaction, not just work engagement.

Stay home and work. Remote work has underutilized potential. It should be a no-brainer enshrined in public policy. It would cut traffic congestion and air pollution, save energy, make it easier to drop kids at school or care for them at home. About 40% of IBM employees don’t sit in an IBM office on any given day; IBMers in developing countries can get allowances for broadband connections at home.

The work of family. A recent conference was titled “What Men Can Do to Advance Women’s Leadership.” For starters, the laundry. The division of labor at home has barely budged in recent decades (although high-tech strollers suitable for jogging attract young fathers, giving young mothers a short break). As long as women shoulder a disproportionate share of family responsibilities, they risk exhaustion and limits to the extras that build leadership capabilities, such as special projects, travel, professional associations, and civic involvement.

Pay equity. Complete this sentence: “If women ran the world....” Some people answer, “More butter, fewer guns.” But I say, using U.S. statistics, that if women ran the world, running the world would pay 83 cents on the dollar. The gender gap is hard to close, even with reductions in blatant discrimination and occupational sex segregation. Interrupted careers might explain lower lifetime wages and subtle bias. When providing opportunities, do decision makers place bets on who will stay, who will rise? Beware of self-fulfilling prophecies.

“Pray” between work and love. Values are in vogue. Many companies seek universal values to unite diverse people behind a common purpose, matching the newer generations’ desire for meaningful, values-based work. At the same time, religion, long a personal matter left to family time, is creeping into the workplace and proving difficult to deal with. Some companies try to ban discussion of religion (and politics) at work. Others wonder where to draw the line: prayer breakfasts, spiritual study groups, religious garb, holiday decorations?

Workplace etiquette. Structural solutions—such as flexible hours, remote work, family-friendly benefits programs, dry-cleaning services, and on-site chapels—haven’t always changed interaction norms. The Good Workplace in theory can be undermined by retro managers who begrudge people their personal lives. Yet sometimes the managers have arguments on their side. Working parents or religious devotees may take their privileges as license to provide too much personal information. If they miss a meeting, so be it.

But flaunting their “more important” responsibilities or appearing to put the rest of life ahead of work can demoralize hardworking colleagues who feel they must take up the slack. With benefits come responsibilities.

Clearly, the connections among working, praying, and loving are ripe for reinvention. So smile like Julia Roberts in the movie, and put these issues on top of the management agenda.