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A balancing act: managing your personal and professional life--Part II.

BEING AN "employer of choice in health care has taken on new meaning in the face of shortages in various labor pools with professional and technical expertise. Many experts also express concern about a leadership shortage. In the midst of crisis management, leaders can loose sight of caring for their employees. Its seems even easier for leaders to loose sight of caring for themselves. Even the most generous compensation and benefits, creative work arrangements, and healthy work environments provided by an employer cannot compete with the forces of our personal lives at times. These forces can make the most capable and motivated worker powerless and ineffective. While employers often provide employee-assistance programs and can offer various benefits and resources to enable achieving better balance, much of the pursuit of balance lies in the hands of the individual.

Being single, rearing young families, and caring for aging parents are common life circumstances and events that bring with them unique psychosocial and logistical challenges. Many individuals have explored work-from-home arrangements in pursuit of more flexibility in their personal lives. While these arrangements have many benefits to employees and employers, they have several notable trade-offs. Progressive employers have developed work/life programs that take the form of tangible employee benefits, are palpable in the corporate culture, and often result in high organizational performance. In this two-part series, some specific personal challenges faced by employees and leaders alike will be explored. Constructive approaches to understanding these challenges and making strides toward improving personal and professional balance will be offered. In Part I of this series, balancing work and personal life, rearing young families, and caring for aging parents were examined (Smith, 2003). In Part II, tips for working from home and being a fair and flexible employer are discussed.

The content of this series was derived from an event held jointly by the Northern Cook County Regents Advisory Council of the American College of Healthcare Executives, Chicago Health Executives Forum, Chicago Midwest Chapter of the National Association of Health Services Executives, and Women Health Executives Network on May 20, 2003 in Chicago, IL. The event consisted of a keynote address and breakout sessions that explored life circumstances that present unique challenges to managing personal and professional balance. Through facilitated group discussion, each group identified pressures and defined practical steps for improved balance based upon literature, experience, and collective wisdom.

Working From Home

The session entitled "Working from Home" was led by Alison P. Smith, BA, BSN, RN, an independent consultant and work-from-home mother. The purpose of this session was to identify advantages and approaches to achieving a flexible work life, understand unique challenges of potential isolation and an unstructured environment, and define strategies and work habits to separate work and personal life.

According to a 2001 U.S. Department of Labor Report, 19.8 million people reported doing some work for their primary job from home. Approximately half of those workers receiving hourly wages or salaries stated that the work they brought home was uncompensated. Other respondents, 17%, reported having compensation arrangements for their work at home. One-third of the respondents were self-employed. Women and men were equally likely to do some work at home. Parents were slightly more likely to complete some work at home than people without children.

How and why did I pursue this work arrangement? The group participants discussed various reasons for working from home. In some cases, employees negotiated with their employers to gain more flexibility with their personal or family life. Others desired more control and independence in their work environment. In some cases, their employer requested that they work from home in an effort to reduce office overhead. Still others have been driven by an entrepreneurial spirit coupled with the desire for control, independence, and flexibility resulting in the start of their own business. Obviously, telephone and computer technology have made this arrangement feasible. The proliferation of technology has made these means of communication acceptable and even preferred in some business communities.

What have I gained and lost? The benefits of flexibility and independence are readily apparent. Many professionals may consider working from home to be the ultimate step toward balancing personal and professional life because of these benefits. However, the challenge of separating personal and professional life may be greater than ever when they coexist under one roof. Determining when the work day begins and ends may be a decision in your total and direct control when you work from home, but getting started and knowing when to stop can be more difficult in an unstructured home environment than in a structured office environment. Choices become more difficult when you can physically see and touch the pile of work and the pile of laundry side by side. Many professionals actually value being able to walk away from their chaotic home or work environment and feel refreshed by that separation. Isolation is another risk associated with working from home. Beyond water cooler talk, professional and social connections that occur in a traditional work environment are more difficult to establish and sustain when working from home. Efforts to become involved in professional organizations, participate in conferences, or conduct meetings in person periodically can help develop and sustain such connections.

As my own boss, what characteristics and values in me do I need to recognize and support? Working from home may be a poor choice for some individuals. People with personality types that favor high levels of interactions, collaborative work styles, and who thrive with frequent feedback and validation may need a more traditional office environment to flourish. The degree to which individuals are internally or externally motivated should be considered as well. John Knowlton writes about the "open collar" worker and forewarns "avoiding the twin demons of working from home--workaholism and slothdom--requires diligence, focus, balance." For many professionals, their work life contributes heavily to their identity and sense of belonging. Winning flexibility by working from home should not come at the expense of losing your self-concept. On a practical note, individual work habits must be carefully managed when working from home including concentration, organization, and discipline. While some of these behaviors can be learned or improved, frankly, some individuals would be a wreck without the external structure and discipline of an office environment.

How can I achieve better balance when working from home? All of the popular business literature addressing the needs of the growing work-from-home population emphasizes creating structure in your home office. Practical strategies include scheduling your workday to include time for email, phone calls, reading, research, and writing, not to mention meals and breaks. Creating daily task lists at the end of the day to prepare for the start of the next day was also recommended. In addition to organizing your time, it is equally important to organize your home office in terms of an office space conducive to the nature of your work that is equipped with the appropriate tools and storage. John Knowlton also noted "a good chair, a good desk and a door that closes may be the most important 'equipment' in your office." "The door" may be particularly important if you have children in your home, complete with posted office hours and an "Open/Closed" sign. Lastly, even though you may be the only one working in your home, you do not have to be the only person doing work. In the context of your business budget, use support services for clerical or cleaning tasks, which may be critical to leveraging your productivity.

While working from home brings many advantages and can be a major leap for many seeking better balance between their personal and professional life, the balance does not occur automatically. Working from home has a unique set of challenges including self-discipline and the potential for isolation. Thoughtful construction of your work space and your work day are essential for successful management of this flexibility.

Being a Fair and Flexible Employer

George Karavattuveetil led the session on being a fair and flexible employer. He is president of AccentHR, LLC, a client partnership company, helping to build work environments where people willingly choose to contribute 100% for the success of their organization. The session was designed to define the purpose of organizational work/life programs in terms of employee satisfaction, recruitment and retention, and financial performance; focus on the effects of organizational mission and leadership behaviors; and identify true drivers of improved work/life balance from a culture, benefit, and policy perspective.

According to a 1998 Gallup survey, 90% of employees surveyed responded that work/life benefits were as important as health insurance. As confirmation, a 1999 U.S. House of Representatives survey of college students and interns resulted in over one-third of them responding that the most important characteristic of the "ideal" employer is emphasis on work/life balance.

In an effort to create an environment of work/life balance, an organization must begin with clear organizational vision and values. How does your mission statement reflect the importance of work/life balance? It is critical to define the purpose of organizational work/life programs in terms of employee satisfaction, recruitment/retention goals, and financial performance.

Ultimately, it is an employee's responsibility to balance the demands of her life--work, home, etc. An organization should never assume responsibility that is clearly the individual's. However, the organization does have opportunity to positively influence an employee's quality of life by improving the ability of an individual to balance the demands of life and achieve true success.

Organizational work/life programs including alternative work arrangements, on-site childcare, and telecommuting can all contribute to improved life balance. However, the greatest opportunity to positively influence an employee's life balance is in the hands of his/her supervisor, supported by organizational policy and programs. The frontline management team is in the best position to understand the needs of individual staff and offer "fair and flexible" opportunities to balance a staff member's life. With a clear understanding of an organization's vision and values, a supervisor can confidently address an employee's life challenges in a positive manner.

The fairness is in the form of equal consideration to all employees given the same situation. The flexibility is in being able to think of alternative ways to accomplish agreed upon goals. Fairness and flexibility can only be accomplished in a culture where both employer and employee are clear on goals to achieve the mission. Equally important is an understanding of the values, the drivers affecting organizational behavior, and the decision-making process. With these firmly in place, a culture of fairness and flexibility can be established.

"What's in it for me?" is the question from both employers and employees. "Fair to whom?" "Flexibility for whose benefit?" The boom years between 1996 and 1998 resulted in an 89% return for the S&P 500. In contrast, the 61 publicly traded companies that compose the list of "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers" had a return of 98%! All individuals, including working mothers, perform at higher levels for employers whom they see as positive influences on their ability to balance work/life. By being both fair and flexible with their employees, employers have a great opportunity to positively and significantly impact the bottom line.

Planning Considerations

When planning the event, the coordinating committee gave special consideration to the fact that the audience comprised professional colleagues, many of whom were seeking jobs and looking for prospective employees. Most participants would probably not be comfortable divulging significant amounts of personal information in front of strangers, employees, associates, or superiors. With that in mind, each of the sessions was designed to identify issues in generalities and through a voluntary and participative process.

Summary

Managing your personal and professional life is a lifelong balancing act due to situations that arise in the course of expected and unexpected normal life events. Identifying and dealing with these issues in your own life will likely make you a stronger leader in the eyes of your employees who often struggle with similar issues. Acknowledging these struggles among your employees can help create community in work teams, which ultimately translates into retention. Advocating for work life policies in your organization will transform personal compassion into organizational culture and, ultimately, into corporate policy.

REFERENCE

Smith, A.P. (2003). A balancing act: Managing your personal and professional life--Part I. Nursing Economic$, 21(6), 288-290, 295.

ALISON P. SMITH, BSN, RN, is Assistant Editor, Nursing Economic$, and a Leadership Consultant. Chicago, IL.

GEORGE KARAVATTUVEETIL, is President. AccentHR. LLC, is a Oak Brook, IL.
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Title Annotation:Leadership Roundtable
Author:Smith, Alison P.; Karavattuveetil, George
Publication:Nursing Economics
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:2087
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