Feature Article

A Balancing Act

By Aine Cryts

Illustration by Annelise CaposselaIllustration by Annelise Capossela

It was Scottsdale, Arizona's active lifestyle that appealed to Hannah Costa SHRM-CP '08, currently people and culture business partner at Stitch Fix, an online retailer.

Costa yearned to be able to lace up her running shoes and hiking boots throughout the year. That's tough in the Boston area, which is notorious for its bitterly cold winters.

Fast forward to summer 2016. That's when Costa told her then-colleagues at PlumChoice, a Lowell, Massachusetts-based IT consulting firm, that she planned to make the cross-country move. She asked to continue in her role as a human resources generalist on a remote basis.

Her goal? To escape Boston's brutal winters, shave minutes off her fastest marathon time - which, back then, was 5 hours, 22 minutes - and keep a job that was the right fit, in the wrong location.

Her team at PlumChoice said yes. Costa then hit the road, working in her car for three days during the approximately 2,640-mile drive from MA to AZ.

The feat of flexibility

Countless pairs of running shoes and hard-won miles later, Costa shaved more than an hour off her marathon time. PlumChoice's support of her move out west to pursue the lifestyle of her dreams made all the difference, she says. "It was so important to me that I felt they trusted me."

Wellness benefits can reduce the chance that patients will suffer from chronic conditions, such as chest pain, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Still, the transition to working on a 100 percent remote basis had its challenges. Costa learned quickly that she'd need to create some boundaries around her work day. She did that by deciding to work a certain number of hours each day and reserving the rest of the day for her personal life.

More advice from Costa on working remotely? Connecting with colleagues and management is important. That's because it's easy for an employee to become isolated in that situation.

"Start having those 'touch bases' with your peers and your manager daily," she recommends. Video chat helps with this, she says, because remote employees can continue to see people's faces, and everyone can discuss goals and priorities in real time.

Support on site

The fact is, not all employees can work from home. Take, for example, the team that builds trade show exhibits at Whitinsville, Massachusetts-based marketing firm Access TCA. These team members can't bring their band saws home with them, jokes Tom Gardner '03 G'08, director of human resources.

The number of employers providing paid maternity leave went up nine percent from 2016 to 2018. Source: Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)There are a few times a year that these construction workers put in 70 or 80 hours a week - and that can wear down anyone. The company treats team members to dinner when they're pulling these long shifts, and creates additional opportunities for employees to "be at work but not have to work." Statistics affirm that small efforts like those have a big impact: The company had a 92 percent retention rate in 2018.

Not all perks are created equal, which makes "work-life balance" a subjective and slippery concept. For example, San Francisco-based crowdfunding platform Indiegogo is a great place for employees who own dogs (they are welcome and encouraged in the office), reports Business Insider.

For those with young children, on-site day care might be a top priority. Case in point: Ventura, California-based outdoor clothing and gear retailer Patagonia. CEO Rose Macario writes in Fast Company that 100 percent of mothers working at the company have returned after maternity leave, and the on-site day care helps. She adds that employees with children in the program are 25 percent more likely to remain at Patagonia.

Aligning benefits with the company's mission is another powerful strategy. For example, footwear and apparel company Reebok, which has its U.S. headquarters in Boston, provides an on-site gym with CrossFit classes to support employees' pursuit of their fitness goals, according to a blog post on Glassdoor.com.

Different life stages

There are employees who want more flexibility in their work day, and the nature of their roles makes that possible.

Employees should consider establishing work-free hours during the week. "Setting boundaries will help train your brain into letting go and enjoying some downtime." Source: Jena McGregor, Washington PostCorey Harrison '06, consultant/human resources business partner at Hopkinton, Massachusetts-based computer storage company Dell EMC, says an employee's desired work-life balance depends on where they are in their life and their career. For example, she supports the company's inside sales team, most of whom are "fresh out of college," she says. These younger employees really embrace being able to work from a coffee shop, get in a workout at the gym, or even take a trip to Europe and work remotely for a week.

By way of contrast, employees who need to juggle work and family responsibilities may view work-life balance as the ability to cheer on their kids at a soccer game - or even coach the team, says Harrison. Employees at later stages in their careers may need support as they attempt to care for their aging parents, she adds.

For employees in pursuit of advanced degrees, providing a more flexible work schedule can help, as can tuition reimbursement. That's according to Alison Davis, a current student in Lasell College's Master of Science in Human Resources program. She's also a human resources coordinator at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. On a practical level, her managers support her need for a flexible work schedule to accommodate exams or study sessions.

70 percent of organizations offer telecommuting (on full-time, part-time, or ad hoc basis). That's up from 62 percent in 2017. $1,685 is the indirect cost for each employee each year, due to missed work and associated productivity losses. 32 percent of employees who were unlikely to pursue new positions outside their current organization cited overall benefits packages as the reason. Companies that leverage benefits to recruit and retain employees are more than twice as likely to have more satisfied employees. Sources: CDC, SHRM

Work-life balance: myth or reality?

Kim Howard, a part-time human resources lecturer at Lasell, has served in a variety of human resources leadership roles, including positions at Curry College, Quincy College, and the University of Massachusetts.

She chuckled during a phone interview for this article, which she did from her car parked outside the venue that hosted her son's hockey tournament. This just illustrates, she says, the type of flexibility that today's professionals need as they balance the needs of their employers with their personal lives.

Providing the right work-life balance benefits to employees is an organizational strategy, says Marymichele Delaney, director of human resources at Lasell. "If work is taking employees away from their personal lives too much, you're not going to get their best work [as an employer]. You're going to lose them, because the employee will look elsewhere."

Company-organized fitness competitions/challenges have increased 10 percent since 2017. Source: SHRM

In 2025, millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce, reports Forbes. Work-life balance is one of the top priorities of this age cohort, says Delaney. "Employers have to look at their [talent] pipeline. It's mainly millennials, which means you need to speak their language or you're going to lose them - and turnover is really expensive."

She adds that work-life balance programs can be done strategically -and, importantly, at low cost.

For example, Lasell provides access to a certified financial planner at no cost to the employee to help them navigate through retirement planning or college financing for their children. In addition, many of the College's employees have the ability to work four-day weeks during the summer.

"That's a message to the community: We know that you have a life. We want you to balance that life during the summer when there's less pressure on us in terms of teaching students," says Delaney.

Top reasons to increase benefits, according to respondents of SHRM's annual survey of U.S. employers: 72 percent retain employees; 58 percent attract new talent; 54 percent respond to employee feedbackHoward agrees. That kind of message, she says, is what CEOs and institutional leaders need to keep in mind as they map their retention strategies. She admits that being able to do it all is challenging. In fact, for the last several years, she has weighed the merits of full-time work against consulting, which could be a better fit at this stage in her life.

It comes down to priorities. Employees need to regularly reflect on what they seek from a job and how that ideally meshes with their personal endeavors. "If you give employees the time they need, you're going to get that back in spades," says Howard.

"If it is true that people are a company's biggest asset, [then work-life balance is] really the human resources equivalent of return on investment."

4 Must-Ask Questions to Assess an Employer's Work-Life Balance Benefits

Marymichele Delaney, director of human resources at Lasell College, advises asking questions during the interview process that are basic in nature, but revealing in reply. Questions such as those below can unearth the reality of how a manager or company might deliver on work-life balance promises:

1) "What benefits do you provide that are focused on work-life balance or wellness?"
Kim Howard, a seasoned human resources expert and lecturer at Lasell, suggests this question as a start. Applicants look for a variety of benefits, such as the ability to work remotely, log flexible hours, take parental leave, use wellness facilities, access on-site childcare and more, she adds. A lack of response may also be quite telling. 

2) "What does a typical work week look like?"
Variations on this question might include: "How would you describe the work culture here?" and "How do you set employees up for success and career development?" Responses will inform the candidate about the company's culture and expectations, says Howard.

3) "How do the organization's work-life balance values play out for you in your daily work?"
This question, according to Delaney, allows the candidate to ask for concrete evidence that the organization's values and vision for work-life balance - as described in its recruitment materials - actually exist.

4) "What are your interests outside the workplace?
With this question, candidates for a position can learn a lot from their potential employers, says Tom Gardner '03 G'08, director of human resources at TCA Access. And what they don't say is just as important as what they do say. The subtext to this question, posed to the employer, is really, "Are you so consumed by work that you don't have other interests, hobbies, or down time?" he says. He adds that it is a great way to allow employers to prove commitment to their work-life balance philosophy, whatever that may be. 

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