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When We Say "Work Life Balance," What do we Really Mean?

Work-life balance is a ubiquitous, buzzword term — its meaning obfuscated by its overuse. At its core, the term describes a work environment that values employees, one that encourage workers to avoid commutes that create stress and strain and instead foster the connection and peace that comes from spending time with family and friends, and engaging in leisure activities.

In a article, social psychologist Ron Friedman suggests that work-life balance is an impossible illusion. If work-life balance is a utopian view of organizing labor, then at least it's one worth holding onto. Freidman concedes that turning people into work machines, required to sit in a cube or office for a set amount of time everyday, is best suited for routine factory labor, if that, and is certainly no way to retain them. Moreover, unplugging from work, particularly from email, is necessary to work effectively and creatively.

Friedman writes:

Ultimately, it is companies that are quickest to realize that it is in their financial interests to care for the entire employee — not just the sliver of them that sits in the office for 40 hours a week — that stand to gain the greatest benefits in the form of stronger loyalty, higher engagement and top performance.

ACC research supports this conclusion. But it is often hard to find good examples of workplaces that truly embrace flexibility and offer work-life balance programs that empower employees to make the best choices for their overall well-being. Women CEOs like Katharine Zaleski have written widely read articles and opinion pieces citing the need to dispel myths that women cannot be successful in demanding roles by incorporating the characteristics important to leadership while managing personal success

Boston Consulting Group has an approach that seeks to value work product over work input. The program is called PTO, which stands for Predictability, Teaming and Open Communication, and it involves giving employees protected personal time.

Brazilian law firm Machado, Meyer, Sendacz e Opice Advogados is also taking workplace flexibility seriously by developing something unique among law firms in Brazil — a best practices example of attracting, retaining and developing female talent. The program grew out of a desire to increase the number of female partners, which is now at 37 percent. Roberta Danelon Leonhardt, a partner at the firm and member of the program's core committee, says:

We were seeing important women associates leaving the law firm. We are a big firm. We have a reputation for working hard. Sometimes it's hard to do both: To take care of your family and work until late in the night without lunch breaks.

The strategy for retaining women and achieving more parity in leadership positions is manifold. Every female associate is paired with a partner who serves as her mentor. Mentor and mentee, as well as female clients and women in leadership positions in other industries, participate in monthly networking events. These events allow women to discuss challenges and successes associated with breaking through the much-aggrieved "glass ceiling." The program also has an "hour distribution" component that allows participants, particularly those with young children, to work flexible schedules and even work from home. Leonhardt continues:

Home office programs are mainly for new moms… And what we're now analyzing is whether or not this program can be extended to male associates. This is a long-term goal.

She also notes that as the program expands, the stigma associated with flexible working is decreasing — a challenge frequently noted in ACC's work-life balance study and present at Machado Meyer.  She says:

We're fighting the stigma by increasing the number of associates with home offices or working part-time and retaining them in the long-term. They bring talent, experience and expertise. It's in our best interest to retain them.

Gender and diversity researchers continue to link women's presence in the business market with economic growth at the national and state levels. Yet, according to Forbes, less than five percent of the top companies have female chief executives. Change is afoot. The good news is that the percentage of women occupying the chief legal officer role is 12 percentage points higher in Generation X than in the Baby Boomer generation.

Shifting mindsets in organizations require elevated awareness of the positive contributions and business outcomes associated with a female presence in top leadership positions, and programs like the one at Machado, Meyer, Sendacz e Opice Advogados seek to recruit and retain women as part of its strategic goals. A 2015 study by McKinsey illustrates that organizations dedicated to leadership diversity are more profitable and this trend is global. According this study, gender diversity equates to higher profits by a wide margin. Companies with greater gender-diversity in leadership were 15 percent more likely to report financial returns above their national industry median

Yet, according to Forbes, less than five percent of the top companies have female chief executives. Change is afoot. The good news is that the percentage of women occupying the chief legal officer role is 12 percentage points higher in Generation X than in the Baby Boomer generation. 

The changing demographics of leadership positions and the implications of this is a topic future articles will explore. Innovative programs and polices implemented in companies across the globe will continue to inspire research on their impact and on the long term outcomes of diversity on organizations. In the meantime, check out the 2014 ACC Global Work-Life Balance Report.

About the Author

Laurie Adamson is an editorial coordinator for the Association of Corporate Counsel.

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