By now, everyone has formed an opinion on Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to end teleworking and bring employees back to its offices. "We were doing what was right for Yahoo! right now," Mayer defended her company's strategy at a recent conference.

Work-life balance means different things to every employee and every company culture, and its definition even changes over time. While some companies like Yahoo! have drawn a line in the sand, others, such as The Dow Chemical Company, have taken a more flexible approach.

The company has a very transparent culture where employees feel comfortable asking leaders for adjustments in their schedules. Employees at Dow have "ownership" of their work schedules, which creates better work-life balance. The company encourages managers to openly discuss and implement flexible working arrangements that fit the employee's and company's needs.

"It's the way work is evolving now. We want to be very progressive in how we manage our employees," explains David Mongrue, operations director of acrylics & coating envelope at Dow Chemical. "The expectations of work-life balance are higher today than they were 30 years ago," he says, adding that employees from Generations X and Y expect a different work balance than their parents did.

Mongrue and his colleagues believe that by offering the progressive benefits and flexible features employees want, they can continue to attract and retain the best talent.

"For employees who have more flexibility, it increases their engagement, their productivity and ultimately their loyalty to the company. ... It makes good business sense," adds Sarah Kok, director of organizational effectiveness at Dow Chemical.

Dow leaders have created a work environment to meet employees' needs on a case-by-case basis. Managers and workers structure flexible work arrangements that are appropriate for each individual and fit business requirements. Their focus is on getting the job or task done, not on the number of hours an employee clocks in.

Though flexible, Dow managers and employees work "within the boundaries of the policy to make [flexibility arrangements] work for the business's success and the employee's success," says Kok. "But we try to make it less about the policies and more about what works best for the employee. We let each individual employee define [work-life balance] for themselves in discussions with their leader."

For example, in addition to offering military, maternity, jury duty and funeral leave, Dow employees may have flexible lunch hours or have the option to start earlier or later in the morning. Teleworking options are also available to employees, depending on their role. Often professional employees may have more flexibility in their position than hourly workers, but options are considered individually - leaders don't make across-the-board policies for a function or business unit.

"We offer it where it makes sense," says Kok. She says when a work-life program is mandatory "it becomes inflexible." HR leaders only insist that managers and employees keep a steady dialogue. While basic policy frameworks and company structures are necessary, flexibility means different things for different people, and managers should discuss work-life balance individually to meet specific needs.

For example, Dow managers have allowed some new mothers to switch to part-time work and then eventually return full-time. And at one employee's request, the manager moved the employee to a more virtual role when the employee was diagnosed with cancer.

Many new employees recently hired at Dow's outpost operations in the Gulf Coast area participate in a 9/80 schedule. They work 80 hours in nine days and receive every other Friday off. During those extra days off, employees can schedule doctor appointments or meetings at their child's school.

"[Be careful that] in an effort to be flexible you don't force a one-size-fits-all policy. Ask leaders and employees how they define work-life flexibility in a business context," advises Kok.


Training managers key

Consultant Maria Lund suggests some policy uniformity is required, but training managers is key. "At some level, you need to set policies that are fair and balanced for all employees," says Lund, president of First Sun EAP. But in terms of execution, she advises employers equip managers by training them to discuss these issues individually with employees, as well as train them how to weigh the company's needs and the employee's needs and empower them to find creative solutions. Her own workplace no longer hosts once-popular social outings with employees and families due to busy schedules. Instead, employees participate in community service activities together. In order to evolve, says Lund, "we've had to watch over time to see what's meaningful to them."

To stay in touch with employees' changing needs, HR leaders at Dow Chemical spend significant time and resources training managers.

"We allow our leaders to be empowered to make the decisions within certain boundaries of what works best for the employee," says Kok, insisting that opportunities to discuss work-life balance come up naturally. Leaders talk throughout the year about goals, new assignments, geographic moves, career aspirations and job performance.

"As you're having those conversations about career aspirations and job performance, it's a natural evolution to go into flexibility and how can we best meet the personal needs so you can become best person on the job professionally," she says.

To ensure that productivity doesnn't suffer with increased flexibility, employers must share very clear expectations with employees. Dow employees sit with managers at the beginning of each year and then measure results at the end of the year.



Define boundaries

"We have a culture where we define boundaries and accountabilities, but give our employees room to deliver," says Mongrue. For example, if one work group uses 9/80 scheduling, the manager could insist that employees get every other Friday off only if they complete their work. Or managers could split the group, so no more than half of the team is away from the office. That way, clients don't experience a service disruption.

Mongrue also advises managers to let the team help manage its schedule to achieve a reasonable goal or objective. Often the team members find better solutions on their own or with each other than if they were dictated to by one of their managers or executives.

"We try to have an environment where the employee can succeed in their professional life as well as their personal life," says Kok, summing up Dow's philosophy. She believes employers must provide flexible work options to employees. "The world is fast-paced and highly connected, and we have so many options available to us with the advantages of technology, that [employers] have to if they're going to attract and retain the top talent of the world."



Teleworking: The Facts

"A generation ago, the office was the only place to work and home was a sanctuary. Today work and home are fluid, as technology, particularly mobile technology, brings one into the other. We all need to work together, managers and employees, to determine what this new way of working means," believes Lea Green, social media content manager for PGi, a global provider of business collaboration solutions and one of millions of employees who regularly telecommutes.

Here are four factors for employers and employees considering telework options that fit the individual and company needs.


1. Out of sight, out of mind

Managers often choose workers for promotion who show "presenteeism," according to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review. Further, 56% of employees believe that remote work damages promotion opportunities. Because teleworkers are often passively present via email and conference call, they often get lower performance reviews, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their office-bound colleagues.

Green doesn't believe this survey suggests an intentional judgment against remote workers, only that we are still adjusting our perspective on how we define work and productivity.

Experts suggest that remote workers keep detailed records of their successes for managers during performance reviews, as well as proactively seek out work projects and training with colleagues.


2. Time management

While there are pitfalls associated with remote work, if employers manage expectations and create policies that reflect business and employee goals, then they are creating a platform for success, says Green.

"It all comes down to freedom for remote workers and the responsibility to use that freedom wisely," she says.

In fact, 86% of teleworkers say they are more productive in their home office and 20-40% of supervisors report that teleworkers are more productive and take less time to complete tasks at a higher quality, according to a 2011 Staples survey. Further, teleworkers create 43% more business volume than their office counterparts.

"It's been my experience as a teleworker and through managing teleworkers, that telecommuting makes better workers because it fosters a strong work ethic from the inside out," Green says.


3. social technology

Camaraderie is important regardless of location, explains Green. Remote workers and virtual teams need robust technology, such as group video conferencing, online communities, and internal intranets.

"Remote workers need to connect on a personal level with their virtual teams and because they're not there physically, they have to build a virtual presence," she says.

Telework is not done in a bubble. Green recommends not working from home in PJs, but rather to "put on your game face" so you're in the work mindset and are ready for that last-minute video call with a colleague or client.


4. Low cost alternatives

Clearly employees save gas money and time when they telecommute, but employers can also reduce overhead costs with flexible work arrangements.

The average business could save up to $11,000 per employee every year if employees telecommuted part-time. Employees working remotely for a couple of days a week would save U.S. employers $700 billion from real estate and energy savings, according to calculations by Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network. Employers would also reduce costs associated with office furniture, supplies, water, coffee and other workplace expenses.

To support remote workers, employers need to provide robust mobile technology so telecommuters can connect and work effectively from wherever they are.

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