Work/Life and Diversity Practices Internationally
The effective navigation and integration of work and private life presents an increasing challenge to the successful management of diverse workforces. The current Work Life Practice Survey (WLPS) among more than 100 international companies in Europe shows that leading employers offer a multitude of Work/Life measures. Still, many programs are focused on traditional family issues. Companies seem to find it difficult to broaden their approach and meet the need of a diverse workforce. If work/life initiatives were tied closer to Diversity, they would also add more value, says the report.
The days have long gone where women gave up work to look after the home, and men were the sole breadwinners. Today, more and more women in Europe are in paid work, merely pausing for maternity leave. Conversely, men want to spend more time with their children. But changing patterns and preferences in parenting are not the only reasons for developing a better Work/Life Balance. The proportion of elderly people in the European population is rising. This has a number of strong implications. First, it results in a shortage of labor. Second, it requires employees to extend their work life beyond common retirement age. Third, the trend increases the need for elder care. Furthermore, given increasing workloads and stress in modern workplaces, companies find themselves disposed to offer programs for stress reduction and the promotion of health. In short, companies are facing new challenges which have to be tackled with effective programs in order to stay competitive.
Work/Life and Diversity
The topic Work/Life Balance has greatly expanded in the last ten years. To put it simply, it developed from women and family issues to a concept encompassing all employees. The goal of Work/Life measures today is to create suitable working conditions for an increasingly diverse workforce. The labor force potential is “diverse” due to the rising participation of women, migrants, older employees and other groups that were traditionally excluded from employment. The two concepts, Work/Life Balance and Diversity, prescribe many of the same goals such as increased staff commitment and productivity. Yet, while Work/Life Balance measures have a concrete aim in establishing effective working conditions for employees with different life contexts to be successful, Diversity is understood as a fundamental paradigm shift in corporate culture and a systemic change of organizations that used to be mono-cultural. Diversity along with Work/Life Balance programs are tools for the conscious management of diversity, with the aim of fostering and retaining a qualified and productive workforce. By supporting open and respectful environments and by offering a spectrum of approaches the business as a whole, as well as individual potential, will be strengthened. To put this in context, let us view the situation of women.
Female employees used to be faced with a consistent disadvantage in their work life especially if they were or wanted to become mothers; this has never applied to fathers to a similar extend. Work/Life Balance measures aim at curtailing this bias. For example, women and men could take on part time positions to ease or hasten their re-entry into the labor force after having taken parental time. The company too would profit as it retains trained staff and avoids finding a replacement.
The business case for Work/Life
How are European companies meeting these new challenges? In 2006 the WLPS research project was launched, aimed at analyzing the current implementation status of Work/Life programs and initiatives in Europe from a Diversity perspective. The survey explored challenges, drivers and success stories and analyzed the corporate cultures, in order to identify interrelations of cultural attributes and Work/Life measures. A total of 115 organizations from 15 countries across Europe took part at the online survey. When offering WLB measures companies react, on the one hand, to increasing job requirements and the demographic development. On the other hand, they improve the image and, therefore, the attractiveness of the company as an employer. A balance between life and work not only decreases times absent but also increases the productivity and motivation of the work force. European companies are aware of the business case for work-life balance: An overwhelming 87 percent of participating companies considered increased employee motivation to be the most important motivation to implement Work/Life measures, followed by the aim to boost productivity (58 percent) and reducing employees’ stress and absenteeism (47 percent). 46 percent of the companies name “changing societal roles” as a driver for their programs. The results show clear evidence that Work/Life efforts are related to business success. But the clear link to business has not yet been communicated strongly. The results show, that only a minority of companies do a precise cost / benefit analysis.
Work/Life measures still mainstream-oriented
A broad Work/Life concept contains flexible working arrangements, employee support programs, health management and counseling measures. Explicitly, this means to enable employees to work from home, take a sabbatical and receive home services or get a yearly health check. WLPS indicates that traditional role allocations concerning families predominate: A large number of respondents did not agree that the work/life programs of their companies were equally suitable for employees without children. Only few respondents believe that male employees with children are a role model for an active and engaged fatherhood. Very few men would work less or differently in order to pursue an active fatherhood. The survey shows that companies are aware of changing societal roles but do not provide a corporate culture and incentives that reflect these changes. Another key result is the fact that leading employers in Europe offer a multitude of measures, but the desired benefits are not fully utilized as companies do not promote their measures sufficiently. More than one third (34.8 percent) of the interviewed companies do not agree that employees are encouraged to take advantage of available work-life options. Another 18 percent disagree with the statement that managers – and with it role models in organizations – are encouraged to use work/life measures. Although a lot of programs, policies and tools have been implemented over the years, many of them are not utilized often, some are not promoted and other are not accepted without prejudice and negative impact on career development.
The recommendations resulting from these finding are multi-fold: To reach the full business benefits of improved work-life balance it is crucial not only to offer work-life-balance measures, but to encourage the work force to use them and to give positive examples. From a diversity perspective it becomes clear that the operational practice is still mainstream-oriented and focused on traditional families. An approach that does not leverage the full potential of a work force, that does consist to a large part of people without children they currently need to look after. It is crucial to provide schemes for all groups of employees, not only for women or parents or those with health issues. The results also suggest that – similar to Diversity – men should be seen as a key target group for work/life programs. Their contribution is critical for the success of work/life integration. More precisely, fathers should be more encouraged to pursue an active fatherhood. This would contribute to reducing prejudices against parenthood and to improving the ability of women to actively participate in professional life.
Additionally more attention should be given to capturing and communicating the economic benefits of work/life rather than positioning it as a social initiative that could easily be seen as being relevant only for some disadvantaged groups. The latter is likely to lead to reluctance in supporting or promoting the measures. With regard to some of the discrepancies and challenges the WLPS survey identified, the results suggest that work/life initiatives should be tied even closer to Diversity work in the future. The key stakeholders as well as some of the key messages are very similar. Also, due to the many changes in the business environment, there is an increased need for work/life programs to be relevant and effective for all employees, including men and people without children. This should be seen as another opportunity for work/life managers to partner with the Diversity function. Diversity breaks down the traditional understanding of roles and develops a corporate culture where the personal needs of a diverse workforce are addressed equally without prejudice toward or against any single group and without having a negative effect on careers. The result is a highly motivated work force.
Michael Stuber is a Diversity pioneer both on the European level and in Germany. This involvement includes networking with the academic world, with NGOs and in the Public Sector. He is a frequent author on Diversity-related issues and accepts speaking engagements in a variety of contexts. His clients include European subsidiaries of US-based companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Johnson Controls, Ford, Air Products, Kraft Foods and Motorola but also Global corporations such as Allianz, BP, Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Telekom E.ON, Deutsche Post World Net, Volkswagen AutoUni, Volkswagen Bank as well as non-profit organizations.