Focus on work/life balance could free you from the office

Thursday - 5/6/2010, 7:45pm EDT

Kathleen Lingle, executive director, Alliance for Work/Life Progress, WorldatWork

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

Will your 9 to 5 work schedule soon be a thing of the past?

Federal News Radio told you about a recent hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce, where officials from the Office of Personnel Management gave the initial details of a pilot program called the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE).

The program will start early next month, and will allow selected employees to work from wherever they want, whenever they want, as long as the job gets done.

Kathleen Lingle is executive director of the Alliance for Work/Life Progress at WorldatWork.

She also testified at the hearing and spoke about the overall importance of work/life balance, citing a variety of sources that demonstrate that work/life programs make an office more productive overall.

"There's a tremendous amount of data, which I don't think is commonly understood. . . . Based on an enormous amount of research, there's no question that employers partnering with employee to help reduce their work/life conflict creates better outcomes for all stakeholders involved. In fact, it creates shareholder value."

Lingle said some federal agencies have actually been on the forefront of looking at work/life balance, and have been examining the issue for some time.

"I've seen reports that show that back in the early 1970s, agencies were beginning to implement what we now call flexible work arrangements. In fact, when [President Bill] Clinton was in power 20 years later, he wrote some executive memos that reinforced the fact that the evidence and the outcomes were so good, that flexible work arrangements weren't made mandatory in federal terms, but he encouraged all agencies to escalate their practices in that domain."

Despite such progress, Lingle said there had been a sort of stagnation during the past decade when it comes to work/life balance issues within the federal government. Now, work/life balance is being discussed again within President Barack Obama's administration.

One of the biggest problems with work/life has to do with the fact that it is often perceived as an issue that is not that important to overall company or agency productivity.

"'Federal workers ought to be doing their work. Why do they need to be taken care of? They're serving the public -- the taxpayer is paying.' There are a lot of misconceptions. It's really not very expensive, but people think it is. There's a whole [idea] that it's a women's initiative -- which is where it started -- but now we actually have data that shows that men are feeling more work/life conflicts than women. So, there's been a lot of trying to catch up with the data, and data has gotten better over the last 10 years."

It is more important now than ever to examine work/life balance, Lingle stated, and the recession certainly didn't help with office morale overall across the country.

While the federal government did start examining the issue before the private sector, and the Obama administration has placed an emphasis on certain strategies that could help federal employees, Lingle explained that more needs to be done.

"There are these categories of work/life. What's happening in the federal government now is they're being looked at one program in isolation from another. There's a big emphasis on telework, for example. There is inventorying going on in health and wellness, but there isn't a strategic look. For example, research is now showing that flexible work practices increase better health outcomes. That kind of strategy is not being linked together in the federal sector like it is in the private sector."

Overall, however, a bridge is being built between the conventional wisdom that work/life doesn't matter, and the data that demonstrates that it does.

Lingle said part of this might have to do with the fact that a new, younger generation is entering the workforce and asking for different benefits.

"[They] think about work -- and where they're going in life -- differently. We have younger people who [behave] unlike their parents. For example, we're hearing that men want to actually be active fathers, and maybe their fathers weren't because they gave their whole life to their work. We've got a lot of reexamination of values in the workplace, and . . . there's tens of thousands of people approaching retirement who are also beginning to rethink what their values are. These Boomers who didn't think much about this stuff as they were coming along, are actually beginning to coalesce with Generation Y and are becoming much more interested with legacy."