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Motivating Employees: HR tips for getting employees motivated and engaged with your company.

Seeing Work-Life Balance Through Different Lenses

Think your employees are satisfied with their work-life balance? They may be, but a recent survey signals they may not be as satisfied as you think., a human resources research portal, and CareerArc, a recruitment and outplacement firm, released their Workplace Flexibility Study in February. The survey of 1,087 professionals—both employed and those seeking employment—and 116 HR professionals found that 67 percent of the HR professionals think that their employees enjoy balanced lives. But the survey also found that significant numbers of the professionals—45 percent overall and 35 percent of the job seekers—feel their work doesn’t leave them enough time each week for personal activities.

The survey also shows that one in five of the employees surveyed spent 20 hours a week working during their personal time, a figure the survey sponsors call a “clear indicator of suboptimal work-life balance.” Taking work home to do after hours can be a cause of that suboptimal balance, but workplace flexibility programs that give employees the option to periodically work from home without coming into the office can benefit both employees and employers, according to the survey.

Flexibility as HR tool
Eighty-seven percent of the HR leaders in the survey reported that they believe workplace flexibility programs lead to employee satisfaction, and nearly seven out of 10 use workplace flexibility programs as a recruiting and retention tool.

The survey also found that companies are upping their investment in work flexibility programs. Of the companies that knew how much they invested in work-life benefits last year, 60 percent spent less than $20,000, and 29 percent spent more than $40,000. Fifty-three percent of those companies plan to invest more in their programs in 2015.

Even though many of the employers surveyed believe in the benefits of flexibility programs, they still have concerns. The biggest concern they reported was the possibility of employees abusing the system, followed by flexibility not being part of their culture and concerns about employee fairness.

Limited vs. comprehensive options
Despite the importance both employers and employees place on flexibility, another study found that flexible options are not available to most employees. The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College released a study examining the flexible arrangements of 545 U.S. employers. The study found that most arrangements related to allowing employees to change where they work and when they report in, but they didn’t include reduction of work or temporary leave. Also, the flexibility options weren’t usually available to the majority of the employer’s workers.

“While large percentages of employers report that they have at least some workplace flexibility, the number of options is usually limited and they are typically not available to the entire workforce,” Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the center and one of the researchers on the study, said.

“We’re trying to help employers understand that flexible work initiatives work best if their organizations offer a comprehensive set of options,” Pitt-Catsouphes said. “Employers who implement limited programs might become frustrated if they don’t see the outcomes they had hoped for saying, ‘Gosh, this didn’t help us at all’ or, ‘it didn’t help us with recruitment’ or ‘it didn’t help us with retention.’ In fact, it may not be that the flexible work options didn’t work. Rather, that the companies didn’t offer a sufficient range of options to the employees.”

Morning bias
Another study—this one from researchers at the University of Washington Foster School of Business—suggests that even when employees get to choose their work hours, they may be wise to keep going to work early in the day. The study found that employees who begin work early often are perceived by their bosses to be better employees than those who arrive at work later.

“In three separate studies, we found evidence of a natural morning bias at work,” the study’s co-author and doctoral student Kai Chi Yam said. “Compared to people who choose to work earlier in the day, people who choose to work later in the day are implicitly assumed to be less conscientious and less effective in their jobs.”

Balance a myth?
Regardless of how much employers embrace flexibility or how employees choose to take advantage of various flexibility programs, the goal of work-life balance often remains a struggle. Ron Friedman, a social psychologist and author of the book The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, calls true work-life balance a myth.

“Until we come to terms with the fact that separating work from home is a fantasy, we can’t begin to have an intelligent conversation about what it means to create thriving organizations,” Friedman wrote in a December 9, 2014, opinion column on “We can bemoan the blending of our professional and personal lives, or alternatively, we can look for innovative solutions.”

Friedman wrote that while conducting research for his book, he found “a striking gap between the latest science and the realities of the modern workplace.” He said that employers often fear that allowing workers too much flexibility will encourage them to take unfair advantage of the employer. But he said studies have found that giving employees more control over their schedule “motivates them to work harder, produce higher-quality work, and develop greater loyalty for their company.”