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Managers Are Going 'Off the Books' to Meet Workers' Off-Hours Needs

January 17, 1999|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

The nation's employers are experiencing an almost unconscious evolution in how workers balance their lives on and off the job. It seems that some managers are instituting changes quietly without the knowledge or approval of the human resources department or the folks in the executive suite, according to an intriguing report by three human resources experts published recently in the Harvard Business Review.

While skeptics may question the lasting benefit of such clandestine accommodations, the authors contend that this "new breed" of managers is getting such good results from employees that eventually companies will awaken and embrace the methods that got them there.

"We . . . are seeing more and more evidence that as these managers demonstrate success . . . their corporations will recognize their efforts and then the market is going to drive this process," said Stewart D. Friedman of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, one of the coauthors of the article.

The other authors are Perry Christensen of WFD Consulting in Boston and Jessica DeGroot, founder and executive director of Third Path, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group. The three co-founded the Wharton Work/Life Roundtable that is composed of business, government and academic representatives.

Three years of study at dozens of companies of varying sizes and industries found that most executives really aren't very interested in helping workers balance work and personal lives despite demographic changes that have heightened awareness of these issues. Many employers view it more as a battle between conflicting interests, and they want work to win every time.

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Problems are shipped to the human resources department to deal with piecemeal through such little-used programs as flextime and paternity leave, but the corporate culture remains largely untouched, the article notes.

"In recent years, however, we have observed that a small but growing number of managers--many of them flying under the radar of officially sanctioned programs--approach the work-life question differently. They operate under the assumption that work and personal life are not competing priorities but complementary ones," the authors wrote. And the managers' new approach has "yielded tangible payoffs both for organizations and for individual employees."

Down in the trenches, these managers are being guided by three principles: They clearly inform their workers about business priorities and encourage them to be honest about their personal priorities to create a plan for fulfilling them all; they recognize that employees have lives outside the office that can enrich their jobs; they are willing to experiment with the way work is done.

"The more you invest in people's lives outside work, the more they give you at work," Friedman said. "It cuts against the grain of what people have always done."

A manager at a pharmaceutical company, for example, frankly informed employees at an emergency command center that the work was going to increase sharply but that the staff was not, and appealed to them to design a way out of the problem. They proposed radical new schedules with 12-hour shifts instead of eight-hour, with three days on and four days off, alternating with four days on and three days off the next week. This eliminated shifts, created a more predictable schedule with more concentrated time off, and ended up reducing errors because fewer shifts had to be briefed each week.

Putting the principles into action at a corporation takes time and is best begun on a limited base, perhaps with just a single employee at first, the authors said. Or managers can start with themselves, determining how well they set priorities in work and personal life.

Changes Ahead

This year and beyond promise some startling shifts in the world of work-life benefits, including increasingly cautious employers, more outsourcing of programs and an intensifying search for ways to serve a multitude of generations, said consultant Ann Vincola.

"There are going to be some very dramatic changes in the next few years," said Vincola, who is senior partner with Corporate Work/Life Consulting, a Boston-based subsidiary of Knowledge Universe of Burlingame, Calif.

Employers will become more careful with their work-life dollars and will stress measuring how much of a return they're getting on their money, Vincola said. Some programs will be eliminated, some human resources work will be outsourced, and some resource-and-referral programs will be relegated to a company intranet.

But these programs will survive downsizing to help bind the wounds of those who remain.

With people working longer before retiring and with young people entering the work force, employers must find creative ways to meet the needs of many generations, Vincola said.

"They have to be really careful that they're hitting the mark with each generation" to avoid the appearance of favoritism to one age group, she said.

Write to Balancing Act, Business News, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or send e-mail to nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com.

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