Go Home: The Business Case for Work-Life Balance

Posted by Kim Peters on January 02 2015

The well-worn picture of the American Dream typically involves a comfortable home, a decent car and enough in the bank to spring for a vacation every now and again. Less emphasized in this picture, but implied nonetheless, is that people who've worked hard to acquire these things will actually have time to enjoy them.

So it was a little disheartening to find in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll that only 54 percent of those surveyed believe it's possible to achieve career success in the U.S. while also contributing to family and community life. Likewise, a significant minority of respondents – 37 percent – said they've missed out on personal experiences because of pressure to work late or avoid vacation time. This needn't be the case. While serving as the CEO of Great Rated!, I've encountered hundreds of innovative companies that prove respect for employees' lives outside work can actually enhance their performance.

The Business Case for Balance

Over the last century, multiple studies in industrial settings have found a negative relationship between long hours and what people actually accomplish. In one example from 2005, researchers concluded that construction projects that deployed 60-hour weeks over long periods saw productivity average about 24 percent less than at projects where employees worked 40-hour weeks. Crews working 50 hours per week, likewise, were 8 percent less productive than those without overtime.

It's not just construction foremen weighing whether that tradeoff is worth it. Among game studios and the broader universe of tech companies, the debate over the dreaded "crunch time" has simmered for several years. At least one development shop outright refuses to force its people into marathon shifts, even at the request of clients. While another testing and deployment startup recently announced a minimum number of yearly vacation days for its dedicated employees who ignored the temptation of an earlier unlimited-time-off policy.

Keeping an engineer happy in an extremely competitive labor market makes obvious business sense. At the same time, employee-friendly scheduling can benefit the well-being and work satisfaction of anyone. Just look at sleep. Few things have a bigger effect on cognitive performance. Yet medical researchers recently found that work was the top activity exchanged for hours in bed. The same study also concluded that employees can benefit from starting later, with research subjects getting an average of 20 extra minutes of sleep for every hour that the workday was delayed. Granted, rolling in to the office at 10:30 a.m. might not be reasonable for every employee or every team. But giving people some leeway in their hours can result in measurable health benefits.

Then there's the workday itself. Earlier this year, the makers of DeskTime found that the most productive employees using the app were hardly glued to their keyboards for eight hours straight. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the 10 percent of people who accomplished the most work each day did so in short bursts averaging 52 minutes, with 17-minute breaks in between. For these employees, the freedom to work in that fashion wasn't just a perk. It had real implications for performance.

FactSet

The Best Employers Make Work-Life Balance Happen

Grueling hours can be common to software and finance, and FactSet deals in both. Yet when we polled a sample of this company's 2,000 U.S. employees, 92 percent said they were encouraged to balance work and personal life. One team member anonymously remarked, "FactSet is happy to let people work the way that they work best – be it from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or in chunks of time. If you get your work done and are available for communication, you are doing well."

Nearly half of FactSet's workforce (45 percent) take advantage of flexible scheduling, while 18 percent telecommute and employees can draw from at least three weeks of vacation from day one with the organization. Not bad for a publicly traded $5.3 billion company with 35 consecutive years of revenue growth.

At Hyland, creator of enterprise content management solution OnBase, the story is much the same.

"If you complete your responsibilities, you are afforded the flexibility (in my role) to set your own schedule. This support/respect is what I find most attractive about Hyland and what compels me on a daily basis to go the extra yard," says one employee.

Ninety-eight percent of that team member's colleagues surveyed by Great Rated! said they are able to take time off when they think it's necessary, and more than nine in ten also said the company promotes work-life balance. That manifests itself in an on-site Montessori school, hair salon, wellness clinic and gym, plus job-protected maternity leave beyond federal minimums. Like FactSet, it does all this for its 1,565 U.S. employees while facing the market demands of an established, global and growing business.

These are just two examples of technology companies we've surveyed that thrive while they invest in work-life balance. Year after year, they've grown their revenue in spite of the perceived expense of flexible hours and a commitment to time off. The Heartland study found that 68 percent of Americans believe employers "could make it a priority to give workers much more flexibility in their schedules, and happier workers would be more productive and better for business." The future belongs to the companies brave enough to make that happen.