September is Smarter Workplace Month

In case you didn’t get a Hallmark card about this, September was Smarter Workplace Month. Although I am not sure how this got adopted as the topic for a month-long celebration, I am certainly supportive. No one magic thing makes for a smart workplace but one work environment topic that nearly everyone has an opinion on lately is the work-life balance.  Discussion runs the spectrum of "musts" in terms of success, from “you must work a gazillion hours for work fulfillment” to “you must shorten the work week to 30 hours to be healthier, happier and more effective at work.”

Some advocate that the excitement, reward, and accomplishment is worth the single focus of getting rid of life and just having work-work.  Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer credits the success of start-ups like Google to 130-hour work weeks and working on weekends. Policies that cancel telecommuting (which they did in 2013) to increase side-by-side contact, improve communication, and generally help things move faster put the work pace into super-smart. This only works for people who have little to no personal life or can put their life on hold.  

Then you can go to the other side of the equation. Dr. Anna Thomas, coordinator for Campaign for a Shorter Work Week in the UK wrote “Why Working Fewer Hours Would Make Us More Productive” in the November 2015 Edition for The Guardian.  As a medical doctor, she experienced first-hand how too many hours affected her physically. In her article, she sites studies that indicate that a shorter work week could improve worker’s health and mitigate climate change while maintaining overall economic production.  Last August, Amazon announced an experimental 30-hour work week for select employees. This program may be especially appealing to female workers since women are responsible for a much higher percentage of childcare and household responsibilities at home. Having a shorter work week would make juggling work on top of everything else more doable.

The work-life balance discussion isn't just about productive hours of work. Some employers do think about more life as less work but the reality is more complex. Employees who are satisfied with their work situation are more likely to stay and do a better job.  Research finds that employee satisfaction rating of their work-life balance was related to higher ratings of their job performance. This means that reduced hours can mean higher productivity and less turn-over.  In the balance equation, that means that more life might not mean less work.

Satisfaction research is not the only place where adding to the life side of the equation positively affects work. Other research has shown that non-work engagement (this means doing what you like outside work) improves work creativity. The value of creativity in adapting to change and finding solutions quickly is an increasingly valued work trait. How do you find those employees who can “think outside the box”? One study of 262* working adults showed non-work engagement had a significant payoff in facilitating individual creativity at work. More study needs to be done on this but it supports what is trending in other research about fatigue and the need to recharge to do high-quality work.

One reason the work-life balance topic is sure to have proponents on different sides of the equation is because the answer is very personal. People have different energy levels and are in different stages of life and career. It also makes a huge difference if your income level allows you to hire help and substantially control your own work. Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter is a good read that delves into this topic, most especially from the perspective of working woman. Without question, there is also a psychological difference between working 60 hours a week (or more) for your own company versus working that same amount as just a hired hand. Owners who work crazy hours but then sell the company and make millions for their bank account are more likely to be very satisfied with their work-life balance choice (possible as they drink a pina colada from the deck of a cruise ship).

Regardless of where your business philosophy is on the work-life balance spectrum, long-term organization success ABSOLUTELY depends on the health, well-being, and engagement of the people who work for you. Work balance, which equates to being able to take time off when you need it for whatever reason, should match the expectations of those who work for you or you risk losing employees. Changing the work-life balance is often very difficult since it is driven by individuals, the bosses work ethic, work culture, and your industry. Work-life balance is important but it also isn’t the only factor to having a smart work place. In the spirit of having smarter workplaces all year long, here are some easier things you can change to raise the IQ of your work environment:

  • Unnecessary Frustration - Slow internet? Breaking equipment? Reduce unnecessary frustration. If you need a new copier, get one!
  • Unnecessary Interruptions – It takes the average person 23 minutes to refocus on the previous task one he/she is interrupted. Do you expect your employees to immediately answer emails instead of checking twice a day? Do you have a quiet place for people to work on more difficult tasks? Reduce all possible interruptions.
  • Unnecessary Physically Misery – Sitting (being sedentary) is the new “smoking” as far as how bad it is for health. Standing desks only cost $400 and can improve the hours your employees are at the office.
  • Unnecessary Reports - Look critically at status reports. Are they REALLY helping get work done, or only justifying the manager's existence who looks at them? People doing the work as a rule dislike reporting or other paperwork that doesn't get work done.



*How Nonwork Engagement Enhances Creativity:  The Moderating Role of Mindfulness by Dennis Marquardt, Wendy Casper, Demtria Henderson, and Fierong Yuan.   

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