Case study series discusses a variety of workplace strategies
By Christopher W. Cook
How does someone maintain a healthy work-life balance? We have families, kids, organizational events, church, recreational activities, and so on. Combining a day in the office with all the additional daily obligations, a work-life balance can be a tricky thing to accomplish, especially in today’s rush-rush, “no rest for the weary” lifestyle. But strategies can be implemented in the workplace to at least make “work” more bearable, balancing the scale more toward the center.
Published in 2009 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the Case Study Series on Work-Life Balance in Large Organizations contains a handful of approaches to improve work-life balance for employees. And even though the series was published a decade ago, the techniques discussed could still assist in creating a more balanced life and happier employees. Let’s look at a few of them.
[I]f morale is down, it may be time to brainstorm some innovative ways to adjust your company culture.
Please note that while some of the companies discussed in the following case studies operate from multiple locations worldwide, the employees referenced worked at locations in Scotland.
W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.
Headquartered in Newark, Delaware, with offices in more than 25 countries, W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. (Gore), produces proprietary technologies with versatile polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Its products cover multiple purposes, from cables and fabrics to filtration, sealants and venting. While known for its innovative commodities, Gore is also known for its unique business style and corporate culture.
The company operates under an innovative teamwork structure where all employees—all known as associates because they have no defined job titles—commit to four basic principles developed by Co-founder Bill Gore:
- Fairness to each other and everyone with whom they come into contact
- Freedom to encourage, help and allow other associates to grow in knowledge, skill and scope of responsibility
- The ability to make one’s own commitments and keep them
- Consultation with other associates before undertaking actions that could affect the reputation of the company by hitting it “below the waterline”
Employees abide by these four principles. Ann Gilles, an HR associate, stated that “associates are not managed but instead manage themselves by being fair, meeting commitments and consulting others as appropriate. Consequently, there are very few company policies, procedures or rules; practices develop naturally and do not need to be framed in policies.”
In the Gore culture, teams are organized around opportunities, where leaders emerge naturally by demonstrating special knowledge or skills that will move the business objective forward. The roles of leaders and followers are interchangeable by project. The concept of “followership” is based on “personal influence, not power,” according to Gilles.
Every associate is assigned a sponsor or mentor who develops a path in the organization that will offer “personal fulfillment, while maximizing their contribution to the enterprise.” This allows associates to alternately and simultaneously be leaders, followers and sponsors.
Another unique aspect of the company’s culture is its approach to working hours. There are no set working hours; “people make commitments … and people keep their commitments,” Gilles said. “Personal and family responsibilities are okay; people have no need to explain if they are not going to be at work but tend to anyway because we are fair to each other.” If a certain project requires staffing for specific hours, the team decides on the hours of the individuals involved.
Gilles said that “associates buy into what the company stands for, so the quality of input and decisions is better.”
Added John Kennedy, a senior executive: “Our culture and principles drive very high performance from individuals and teams, who are empowered and results-oriented with a strong ‘can-do’ attitude.”
This attitude and its approach to a work-life balance has contributed to the company’s repeatedly appearing on Fortune magazine’s best companies list.
Founded in the United States in 1928, Motorola operates its plants 24 hours a day and seven days a week to remain highly competitive in its market. Placing third in 2018 and 2019 in Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies, Motorola offers a number of arrangements for its employees to help with work-life balance. These include employee assistance programs, special shift arrangements, study leave to take time off for formal qualifications training, emergency holidays for when annual leave needs to be taken during non-holiday time, and job sharing.
Motorola’s full-time operators work seven 12-hour shifts over a two-week period—four days in one week and three days in the other. When the East Kilbride plant in Scotland switched to these work hours, employees were offered the opportunity to job share on either the day or night shift. With job sharing, two people share a full-time job between them, equally splitting the number of hours worked. Though not common, job sharing had been an occasional practice in the United Kingdom, mainly in the public service sector.
Mary McDonald, a single parent with two children, applied to job share on the day shift because of her family situation. After she explained her reasons in the application, the HR department matched her with a partner. According to McDonald, the system “worked very well. I’m full of energy for the days I work; Motorola gets 100% from me. It is very good for family life.”
Alistair Reid, a manufacturing section manager, agreed. At the time of the study 120 employees were participating in job sharing, and they all provided feedback during the annual reviews to assess the effectiveness of partnerships. Reid said: “The transition to new shift patterns, including job share, allowed us to retain key skills and avoid external recruitment.”
Niel McKinven, a senior line manager, said that job sharing allowed the plant to remain competitive and meet its performance metrics. Reid added that women returning to work after maternity leave highly value the benefits of job sharing. But despite all the positives, the strategy does have challenges, especially regarding a change in partnerships and covering shifts around the holidays when time-off requests are common. In these situations, management may need to be involved in scheduling for job sharers.
Lothian and Borders Police
Headquartered in Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders Police (LBP) employed about 2,600 officers and 1,100 staff members at the time of the study. The company has a long history of offering flex time, special leave and other work-life balance arrangements, including:
- Job sharing
- Special shift arrangements, like more daily hours over fewer working days
- Study leave to prepare for formal courses
- Responsibility breaks, or not engaging in specific duties on a temporary basis
- Sports achievement leave for training for the Olympic Games
- Care leave for acting as or arranging for a caregiver for a dependent
- Career breaks
A career break occurs when an employee takes significant time off work to pursue a non-work activity; this can include being a stay-at-home parent or traveling—without pay. A full-time clerical assistant, Louise Parker, had been with LBP for nearly three years when she requested a year off to explore Southeast Asia; a temporary employee was brought in on a fixed-term basis to cover her workload in her absence.
Mariana Forsyth, an HR advisor, described career breaks as the “purest form of work-life balance.” After 54 weeks, Parker returned to LBP a different person, her experiences having changed her perspectives and added skills to the workplace. Parker cited learning about different cultures, challenging stereotypes, improving communication skills and developing self-confidence as positives from her journey. While traveling, Parker found comfort in knowing that her job was waiting for her when she returned. While on her career break, she did not receive employee benefits, and her contract was suspended until she resumed her employment.
Personnel Services Manager Donald Ramsay, along with colleagues, testified that the changes from Parker’s experience were positive. He called it a success story and said that the company has “a much greater awareness of work-life balance throughout the force; staff realize we will try to accommodate flexible working.
“From a management point of view, we now have some good examples of work-life balance programs that work; and there is nothing like that to convince managers. Work-life balance has helped us retain people with key skills, reduce turnover, employ more part-time staff and respond to fewer requests for transfers.”
Malcolm Dickson, assistant chief constable, added that work-life balance should result in “a more contented, less stressed workforce who are therefore more productive and less likely to succumb to stress-related illnesses.”
While job sharing and career breaks worked for the companies represented in the case study, they may not be appropriate for your agency. But if morale is down, it may be time to brainstorm some innovative ways to adjust your company culture. Bring these or your own ideas to the attention of your management team because work is only half of having a strong work-life balance.