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May 24, 2012The talent crunch is real - and it's holding back innovation. Thirty-one percent of global CEOs polled in a recent survey said a shortage of talent has prevented their business from innovating effectively. In China, a staggering 54 percent of CEOs reported the same problem. The solution is clear: attract and retain female talent—and ensure effective work-life tools are in place. In today's guest-post, Catalyst's Laura Sabattini, PhD, Senior Director, Research, expands on the critical importance of effective localized approaches to work-life in corporate Asia. —Ilene H. Lang

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The need to attract and retain the best talent is more important today than ever before, especially amid the ongoing global talent crunch in emerging economies. Many companies recognize that formal work-life programs that address people’s needs outside of work are an effective tool for developing and retaining talent. But new Catalyst research has revealed a crucial mismatch between the needs of high-potential employees in corporate Asia, especially women, and the work-life programs being offered. We found that work-life programs aren’t working for more than 80 percent of employees. This mismatch can negatively affect the career aspirations and advancement opportunities of ambitious women—a growing and still largely untapped talent pool in Asia.

Catalyst uncovered this gap by analyzing the experiences of more than 1,800 high-potential employees in China, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. In Expanding Work-Life Perspectives: Talent Management in Asia, we found that work-life fit is important to both women and men, especially for career-focused individuals aiming for the top. But, while both women and men cite long hours, stress, and the inability to attend to other life priorities as significant challenges, these challenges were especially likely to affect women’s long-term career aspirations. We also found that 38 percent of women, compared to 32 percent of men, believed that their companies did not provide enough flexibility for them to manage their work and personal lives.

So let’s talk about strategies. Smart companies recognize that, when it comes to specific work-life practices, one size does not fit all. As organizations continue to expand globally, they need to develop localized programs that respond to specific regional needs and cross-cultural variations in how employees manage work and personal life in different regions.

New technologies, especially communication technology such as videoconferencing, are making it easier for companies to implement programs that can connect individuals and teams across the globe. Technology can enable more flexible start and end times for work schedules and better transportation options in remote areas. But companies also need to “go local.”

Programs that work well in one context might not work in another. Effective localized work-life programs respond to specific regional needs. For example, remote work might not get widely used in regions where some employees have limited access to reliable Internet connections and where many don’t have the space or resources to work from home. Similarly, childcare subsidies are not as useful in cultural contexts where extended families are heavily involved in providing childcare support, or where local governments already provide similar benefits. Work-life programs need to be adapted accordingly.

What can global companies do to localize their approaches and develop the most effective programs? Simply stated, smart companies figure out what employees need by asking them directly, noting what is going on in the region, and thinking creatively about what programs would be effective. For instance, work-life challenges in more remote locations might be addressed by offering different types of flexible scheduling and transportation supports. Employees in some cultures might benefit from broader family supports that don’t only focus on childcare.

By learning from their employees, global companies can create programs suited to local contexts. This helps them develop and retain the top talent—both women and men—that is crucial to driving business success.

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Laura Sabattini, Ph.D., Senior Director, Research, has extensive expertise on issues of work-life effectiveness, organizational culture, and gender-based stereotyping. She leads and supports research projects related to women's leadership, talent management strategies, and barriers to women's corporate advancement, with a focus on global perspectives and variations. Dr. Sabattini has authored and co-authored several Catalyst reports and research tools including, among others, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership and the Catalyst series on Unwritten Rules to Advancement. She is the co-leader of the Work-Life Issue Specialty Team at Catalyst, an internal group that builds knowledge and fields expertise requests on the topic. She also speaks on these topics to a variety of audiences.