May 05, 2014 | Drs. John Foltz and Jay Akridge
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Is there Such a Thing as Work/Life Balance?

Forget multitasking! Decide when to focus on work and when to block it out.

Our lives end up being complicated and our schedules packed (prob­ably an understatement for most of us). In fact, as time goes by it seems that our days continue to get more involved and challenging. Marriage, children, aging parents, work, community and religious organization involvement ... all add to the ups and downs of modern living. For most of us, work is necessary to provide income to pay for the costs associated with living — food, clothing, housing, healthcare, saving for the kids’ col­lege educations and so on. Add on top of work the demands of our personal life, volunteering in a vari­ety of ways, serving our profes­sional organizations, continuing our education, and so on and finding any downtime in the agenda/schedule can be a real challenge.

So, is there such a thing as work/ life balance? In this column, we look at this topic, and discuss ways to provide balance — both for the employees of your feed and grain business, and for you as the manager.

 What’s the big deal? I want my employees to work hard for me!

From the perspective of your firm, as a grain and feed manager you might argue that you are only con­cerned with the “work” side of the equation — and aren’t so concerned about the “balance” piece. As long as your people are on time, working hard and doing their jobs — is there a problem?

We would argue that the answer is not quite that simple — and especially today. It is obvious from looking at the historical record, that in previous generations this was the approach — employers provided a job, paid their employees and did little to support or encourage work/life balance or improve the workplace environment.

However, the current employment environment has migrated to one that is more complex. Employees are tethered to their jobs through smartphones and the Internet in ways that simply were not possible 30 years ago, making it harder to truly “get away.” Values have certainly evolved and time for activities outside of work is more important to employees. The labor market is increasingly fluid and our employees will change positions more frequently than they once did. In the end, “work/life balance” is something that managers must be focused on, both for their employees and themselves.

We would cite several recent surveys/studies ranking the best employers to work for, and list the amenities with which they provide their employees. As an employer in the feed and grain business, it may not be possible to offer some of these perks, but considering some innovative perks may improve employee retention, and improve productivity. You will need to put a pencil to the cost/benefit ratio, and what local labor market competitors are offering as well.

Some possible innovative perks, which may not cost your company too much might include the following: paying for kids’ summer camp for your employees; offering car cleaning or detailing on a quarterly basis; arranging for a budgeting/financial planning seminar for employees and their spouses from local financial planners (general seminar which might include some of the planners’ services); paying for a springtime visit from a local physician who can do sports camp and summer camp physicals for your employees’ children; paying for babysitting for a couple’s night out for your employees on a quarterly basis.

Think of things that will make your employees’ lives easier — how can you assist them with family/life tasks they may have trouble completing? Are there ways you can utilize local providers of these products or services that have a double benefit — providing business for your local community and helping your employees with their busy lives? Investments here may not cost much in the end, but could be strong signals to your employees that you care about them as people — people who have harried lives.

Some of these ideas may be useful, but some say companies might do better to focus on more intangible benefits. “There’s a lot of research out there that says, although it depends on the employee, the perks come out as less important than job satisfaction,” said Randy Allen, associate dean of Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

In other words, free massages or beer on tap in the office kitchen don’t make up for having a boss who’s a jerk, work tasks that aren’t stimulating or a role that doesn’t allow you to grow. “If you don’t have those fundamentals, the perks aren’t going to fix it,” Allen said. “You may keep them for a while, but at some point they’re going to leave.”

Our point: The thing we can influence most directly as managers is the work environment. We have written before on ways to help employees feel appreciated/find work meaningful, and we certainly believe a manager starts there. But, a manager who wants to build an exceptional team of productive and motivated employees probably won’t stop with what happens at work.

Ideas to assist with work/life balance

So, how do you help prevent job burnout? One way is to emphasize the balance part of the equation. Some of you may be familiar with the philosophy which William H. Danforth (the founder of the livestock feed company Ralston Purina) put forward. As the checkerboard was the famous logo for his company (now owned by Land O’ Lakes), he modified this geometry to found the “Four-Square” way of living — that as individuals, we should all strive to keep our lives in balance — with what he called the four pillars: physical (P), mental (M), religious/spiritual (R) and social (S). This was part of the basis for the American Youth Foundation which Danforth helped found, whose purpose is to: “inspire people to discover and develop their personal best, to seek balance in mental, physical, social and spiritual living and to make a positive difference in their communities and in the wider world.”

Our point here is that balance is important — it keeps you and your employees grounded, and can be a very useful coping strategy to keep the pressures of life from causing things to “boil over.” We would sug­gest that you should constantly be checking this balance, and encour­age your employees to do likewise. What are the things that indicate when things are “out of whack”? They have to do with both the phys­ical  and emotional: Medical readings will start to indicate increases in blood pressure, or insomnia may start to appear; personal relation­ships start to break down.

It may be trite to state, but taking the time for exercise (walking, going to the gym, playing some lunchtime basketball or handball), listening to music or reading, going out for coffee for conversation can all help keep the physical and emotional side of the geometry in balance.

CNN put together a unique online work/life calculator several years ago which allows you to see visually how much time different parts of your life take. Try it out at: www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/ worklife/06/04/balance.calculator/ index.html.

There are other direct benefits for your business. We can get so wrapped up in getting through the day and the week that we simply do not have time to let our minds look to the future, to consider the important but not urgent issues we face, to “blue sky” where our busi­nesses are going. The best managers we know find that kind of time to look beyond the day to day where, to paraphrase legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden’s words, “activity is not confused with accomplishment.”

Time management is key

Effective time management is one of the keys to living a balanced per­sonal and professional life (covered in more detail in our June/July 2009 Manager’s Notebook column “Time — Manage it or it Will Manage You”). You can’t procrastinate and be an effective manager of your time. One way to assist is to make both “to do” and “don’t do” lists. Observe others who seem like they balance things well. Ask them questions as to what they have found works.

One way to assist your employees with this is to hold a “time and personal management” seminar on an annual or biannual basis. Find different regional speakers who can present on this topic, and maybe even invite local purveyors of services to sponsor a dinner for your employees (think financial service providers — mentioned previously; local personal trainers looking for clients; day care providers; and other service providers who might be unique to your area).

For you as a manager, one of the best time management techniques is delegation. Most of us take on too much work and detail, and these tasks can often be done better and more quickly if they are delegated to your subordinates. Think before you do something, and work to utilize your people. They will be empowered, and you will have more time to focus on managing.

Another time management technique that often goes by the wayside in this era of multitasking is focus. Being on task and blocking out distracting activities can actually afford you the opportunity to be more time efficient by focusing and completing tasks. This may be difficult to accomplish during the rush and distractions of the workday. However, be aware of this and you can utilize evenings and weekends to focus — meaning turning off your cell phone, not checking your e-mail and not allowing distractions like a desire to check your stock prices on the Internet to interfere with the task you are concentrating on.

Does balance improve performance, longevity?

According to recent research pub­lished in Training and Development, 69% of work absences are not due to illness, but occur because employees decide to attend to personal needs. This may cost more than $600/absence.

Retensa, a company which develops employ­ee retention strategies, has found that the “con­sequences of not imple­menting work/life balance programs properly are the loss of (and potential disadvantage in attract­ing) talented human capital.” They have an online newsletter you may find useful; see: www.retensa.com/resources/employee-retention-news.php. A way to encourage this work/ life balance is to consider allowing employees an hour or two a week of personal leave time, which they do not have to count toward their annual or vacation leave.

Another thought along this line is to help your employees “draw the line” between work and home. If you are in the habit of sending emails or perhaps even worse — making phone calls to employees on the weekends — stop. Your employees need the time away from work to relax and rejuvenate before another hard week of work. If you simply cannot find the time to communicate with your employees during the week and must send email on a weekend, be sure to let your employees know that they are not obligated to respond and attend to work matters during their personal time.

Try to make these contacts emergency only. Respecting your employees’ need for balance between work and personal life can help to retain talented employees and reduce turnover costs. Work ... life … balance

We hope we have made the point that it can be a challenge to balance the things in our lives, — both personally and to assist the people who work for us. But, just like any other part of management, it takes some focus, determination and sometimes a reminder to attend to it, in order to stay on track. And, like most things related to balance, the teetering continues, but it is important to constantly be re-adjusting to changing conditions and forces. Best of luck with the balancing act! 

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