7 steps to a great work-life balance strategy

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We’ve heard it all before: Work-life balance is dead. Technology — in the form of smartphones, remote work and 24/7 email access — has broken down the boundaries between work and home life as we know it.

At the same time, there’s a slew of research on the importance of somehow creating that balance — and employers are making it a priority to do so.

“Work-life effectiveness is not new, but more and more it’s being recognized as a valuable strategic component in creating an engaged workforce,” says Rose Stanley, senior practice leader at WorldatWork. “This is especially important as a new generation begins to enter the workforce and has very different expectations of what’s important in the employee value proposition. We see many organizations beginning to view employees as consumers of the organization’s brand, and they are being very cognizant in their approach to attracting and retaining talent.”

Mollie O’Brien, director of total rewards at BASF Corp., a global chemical company with nearly 113,000 employees, agrees that work-life balance is an important strategy.

“When [employees] are stressed out about what’s going on with their child care or what’s going on with their financial situation, that takes them away from being productive and engaged and happy at work,” O’Brien says. “Corporations are realizing they need to keep up with this.”

While many employees — and their employers — continue to struggle with the balance, some companies — including BASF Corp. — are getting it right. BASF was among those honored with a Work-Life 2016 Seal of Distinction from WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress, recognizing the company’s commitment to creating a culture that is supportive of employees at work and at home.

“[These awarded companies] are not just talking the talk; they’re walking the walk,” Stanley says. “The seal was created for organizations to be able to take easy stock of what they currently are providing in their organization that may be producing an enhanced work experience. It’s also demonstrating that the leadership and culture are important aspects in helping those programs and initiatives really come alive. We hope it’s also showing that the work experience is made up of many different aspects, and that one program is probably not the only thing that organizations should be thinking of in terms of driving engagement.”

That idea of the work experience being made up of many different aspects certainly rings true for BASF Corp.

“For a company like us — which has had 150 years of success — we’ve had managers who have been with us for decades and we’ve got millennials just joining the ranks. So we’ve got different expectations that we have to address.”

“For a company like us — which has had 150 years of success — we’ve had managers who have been with us for decades and we’ve got millennials just joining the ranks,” O’Brien says. “So we’ve got different expectations that we have to address.”

Though there are many aspects of a work-life balance program, here are seven tips for success, according to O’Brien.

1. Ask your employees what they want. The first step to helping employees get what they want? Ask them. O’Brien says it’s vital that employers listen to employees and collect data on what their perceptions are and what they care about. “It’s hard to have a portfolio of programs to fit [employees’] needs if you don’t know what their needs are,” she says.

2. Communicate effectively with your employees. “One thing that’s so important for us to do is to communicate our programs effectively to make sure people are engaging with them at the right level,” O’Brien says. “Some people are unaware of the programs that their company has that can help them with their life. Something I often say to my team is, ‘If employees knew what I knew about our benefits, they would make different choices for themselves, for their families, for their finances, and I want them to have the same smarts that I have.’”

O’Brien says BASF has seen a “dramatic uptick” in program participation and engagement when the company has made substantial effort in communicating. “I think employees appreciate [our benefits and programs] more, and they think it’s more competitive [when we talk about it]. I don’t think many companies spend as much time as they could in thinking about how to communicate effectively with employees.”

3. Own your company’s story. “We’re not all tech companies with ping-pong tables and free lunches,” she says. “But each of us has a story to tell, and each of us has a way that we’re engaging with employees that’s unique.

“Our employees are really proud to be the No. 1 chemical company in the world,” she continues. “They take a lot of pride that we’re an ethical company and that we’re helping the environment. So if you understand your employees, then there’s a story there and there’s a way to work with employees to make sure you’re building the most engaged portfolio of programs you can for them.”

After all, if employees are engaged with their employer, they tend to be happier and more productive.

4. Think beyond compensation (and think flex time). O’Brien says employers have to understand there’s more to benefits than just compensation. “The compensation has to be competitive, but it has to be about the whole package,” O’Brien says, naming work-life-balance-friendly perks such as child care and flex time. “Flex work is critical. It’s interesting because it cuts across all demographics — male, female, older, younger — it doesn’t matter who you are, everybody wants it, everybody wants to use it.”

5. Challenge your employees. Let them be challenged or allow them new opportunities. “When they’re here, they want a sense of meaning, they want a sense of being connected, they want challenging work,” she says. At BASF, execs have conversations with their employees yearly about what they want to learn or do differently. Many take advantage of a new opportunity, change departments or go on assignments internationally.

“It’s thinking in the mindset of, ‘How can we challenge this employee’? Maybe it’s taking a finance person and putting him in HR, or taking an HR person and putting him in customer service. If they’re a proven leader maybe what they need is to get a totally new sense of the business by putting them in a different department, a different country, a different area and from that, they’ll have completely different eyes when they come back. Or maybe they won’t come back.”

“That’s part of work-life balance—being challenged at work. And I think it’s something we do really well,” O’Brien says.

While not all companies are able to send their best employee to a new continent for a year, it can be done on a smaller scale (allowing them to attend conferences or try a new task, for example).

6. Balance time together and alone (and have the space to do it). “If I think about our offices, we have spaces where people can collaborate, where they can meet in the coffee bar, we have quiet spaces where they can go think about things,” O’Brien says, stressing that there’s value in finding the balance between both individual work and group collaboration.

“It’s important [for employers] to think about that both in terms of architecture, in how the building is built, but also in how we think about it.”

7. Embrace wellness. Of course, wellness is always an important piece of the puzzle. But it can’t stop at just implementing a program. It has to be tweaked, tested and marketed. BASF, for example, had a wellness program for a couple of years, but, O’Brien says, it “didn’t take enough time to engage or really communicate it.”

It recently rebooted its wellness program, telling employees exactly what it was about, getting feedback and giving employees fitness trackers, water bottles and other perks that would get them excited about keeping fit. And it’s working. More than 1,000 workers signed up the first day, and more than 200 people were initially accepted into the weight loss program. A financial wellness program has also been launched.

“We’re totally excited about where we are going to go with the wellness program,” O’Brien says. “It’s an important thing to stress.”

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