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February 9, 2010A CEO on Catalyst’s Board of Directors recently told me, “The business world is 24/7/365—people are not.” In managing her employees, she works from that mindset. She places more value on their levels of engagement and productivity and less emphasis on the hours they log at their desks.

Why is it that so many people consider this an issue of “work-life balance?” I don’t like to use the word “balance” because it infers that equilibrium is the norm and puts the onus of achieving that equilibrium squarely on the shoulders of the individual. I am not alone—many others have abandoned the untenable concept of “balance.” As noted by working dad and blogger, Paul Nyhan, in an online chat last year:

"The word I think is needed is rhythm. I have said work-life balance is a crock, and what I aspire to is a sense of rhythm, there will be crazy busy times and quieter times, but having the tools and flexibility to gain a rhythm to balancing work and family."

Over the years, Catalyst has developed a workforce approach we call WLE, short for “work-life effectiveness.” Our reports on WLE—Making Change—Beyond Flexibility I, Making Change—Beyond Flexibility II, and Making Change: Building a Flexible Workplace—outline a team-based approach that shifts the traditional request for flexibility from “me” to an organizational tool for “us.” At its core, WLE recognizes that people who work have lives outside of work. Pretty cutting edge, no?

When you think about it, the 20th century’s 9-to-5 work structure makes little sense in today’s 24/7 technology-enabled environment. Yet many organizations still cling to the old protocol. A basic PC, webcam and broadband are all it takes for an employee to attend meetings, complete assignments, and work on collaborative projects. Organizations with a strong WLE culture value contributions and results and measure those, rather than relying on arbitrary face-time as a proxy for results.

There is no one-size-fits-all WLE program. WLE is multi-dimensional, considering work design and teamwork, workplace culture, policies, rewards, career path options and employees’ unique needs. Companies that embrace WLE enable employees to shape their careers in ways that reflect and harmonize with, rather than undercut, their priorities.

WLE isn’t only for women; it’s for everyone in the workplace. It’s a tool that enables managers to improve organizational agility, sustainability, and performance. It’s a partnership between managers and employees that rewards contribution and value. In many ways, WLE is really about getting back to the basics: quality people doing quality work.

And this is not anecdotal. In Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth the We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone, Jody Heymann and Alison Earle analyzed employment policies in 190 countries and working conditions of 55,000 households in seven countries. Their study concluded:

"The world’s most successful and competitive nations are providing the supports (to varying degrees– guaranteed paid sick leave, paid leave for new mothers, paid leave for new fathers, paid time off to care for children’s health, guaranteed day of rest each week, wage premium for mandatory overtime) the United States lacks, without harming their competitiveness. Globally, we found that none of these working conditions are linked with lower levels of economic competitiveness or employment… In fact, we found a number of these guarantees are associated with increased competitiveness."

This finding is in line with research on WLE and the bottom line. As outlined in Catalyst’s Work-Life: Prevalence, Utilization, and Benefits fact sheet:

- IBM found that 94% of its managers reported positive impacts of flexible work options on the company's “ability to retain talented professionals.”

- 78% of Ernst & Young's Canadian employees said that it was “very important” or “extremely important” to them to have a flexible work environment; 20% said they have considered or are considering leaving the firm because of unmet needs for flexibility.

- 96% of AstraZeneca's R&D employees say that flexibility influences their decision to stay at the company.

- Using turnover calculations, Deloitte determined that it saved an estimated $41.5 million in turnover-related costs in 2003.

While the benefits to the bottom line are clear, many working women and men are not given the opportunity to work in a WLE environment. This is why Fem2.0’s blog carnival on Work-Life could not have come at a better time. According to the Families and Work Institute, most employers are either maintaining the workplace flexibility they offer (81%) or increasing it (13%) amid the current recession. To stay afloat in the current downtown, companies must find ways to cut costs, retain talent, and ensure employees don’t jump ship when the economy picks up.

Implementing and expanding WLE is the smartest place to start.