Sarah Noll Wilson wrote last week about how people leaders can create a human-centered team environment and culture that fosters your team’s work-life rhythm. Occasionally, more substantial guardrails are needed to protect and encourage an organization’s team members. Here’s where the Human Resources (HR) department comes in.
Human-Centered Workplace Policies to Help Employees Thrive
Generally, HR departments are the architects of an organization’s life-work integration culture. Yes, I know that the term is usually “work-life” and I’m intentionally not using it. Anyone working with other humans knows how collectively desperate we are to promote “life” as the lead component of work-life integration. Even as I write “work-life,” I realize how using work as the first word reinforces that as the primary focus of our existence, but it isn’t. HR departments can help organizations find a healthy balance–where we put people first–through organizational resources, leadership advocacy, and support. As we continue exploring this topic, I want to honor the constraints faced by our friends in professions like health care, public works, public safety, and education, who don’t have options for the same level of flexibility.
This topic is enormous and never more complicated than it is right now. Let’s focus on two key policy areas that dramatically impact culture, engagement, and retention.
An enormous barrier to a supportive work-life integration policy is leadership. In our work with hundreds of individual leaders and teams in 2022, it was clear that a tug-of-war was occurring in many workplaces over the game’s basic rules. We saw it time and time again. No matter how thoughtful the policy was and how well it was communicated, too many leaders created conditions where it was not safe for employees to follow it.
Here is one example: Your company makes a new highly-flexible, employee-centered policy, and the CEO issues a grandly communicated statement that “the company believes employees can add value from any location.” Not long after that, the managers become uncomfortable. The way they know how to manage–often relying on a physical presence like the seat at the head of the table–isn’t going to cut it in this new working environment where team members are empowered to work in ways that suit them best and allow them to deliver quality work on time for the company.
Regardless of policy, managers create conditions where team members feel pressure to come into the office. During a recent conversation, I heard it said, “I can do everything I need to do from home about 80% of the time, but my manager just wants butts in seats. We know he is paying attention to who comes in and doesn’t, regardless of how good the work is and that it’s done on time. We all suspect there will be some kind of payoff for continuing to come in…for staying in his favor.”
What role can HR play when the policy is supportive, and individual managers are not?
Two common traps HR leaders often fall into:
- Over-reliance on time to change behavior–yes, time is important, but time alone will not change behavior.
- Quick fixes like workshops–yes, learning experiences can push our thinking and teach us new skills, but a “one and done” style experience isn’t likely to move the needle very far.
We recommend HR leaders:
- Normalize the challenges facing managers—Have proactive conversations about challenges and changes; create leadership circles where managers can come together to discuss
- Recognize what’s working–share success stories from leaders and team members alike, and reinforce the best practices for leading humans.
Bottom Line: Humans work best when we…
- Have some level of autonomy and a sense of control
- Follow our brain rhythms and work on complicated, creative, or detailed tasks during our peak hours
- Balance the types of tasks we are doing and have time to dedicate to deep work without interruption
- Feel trusted as professional and free from micromanagement or unnecessary oversight
- Exercise, eat well, hydrate, and rest regularly
Create a policy of mandatory minimum time off and advocate for more generous PTO benefits
At SNoWCo, we are huge advocates of unlimited PTO. More specifically, we believe in ensuring team members can utilize PTO without guilt by setting a mandatory minimum that we expect team members to take: two full weeks a year in addition to the one-week shutdown during the summer and a two-week shutdown at the end of the year. We also have a dedicated team member who sends regular reminders to ensure PTO is used.
We recommend HR leaders:
- Eliminate any sort of “perfect attendance” award relics
- Actively promote the benefits of time off
- Celebrate everyone who took the mandatory minimum time off
- Model taking time off without any connectedness to work
- Encourage out-of-office replies that do not apologize for taking time off and not checking in on tasks or with team members.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of paid vacation days per year for full-time workers in the United States is 10.3 days; the average number of paid holidays per year is 6.2 days; and paid sick days average 6.9 a year.
That’s nothing compared to paid time off in Europe. Although they vary greatly depending on the country and the company, European countries usually offer more generous paid time off policies.
As an example, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), full-time workers in European countries take an average of:
- Austria: 25.5 days
- Belgium: 25 days
- Denmark: 25 days
- Finland: 25 days
- France: 30 days
- Germany: 28 days
- Iceland: 25 days
- Ireland: 21 days
- Italy: 30 days
- Luxembourg: 36 days
- Netherlands: 20 days
- Norway: 25 days
- Portugal: 22 days
- Spain: 30 days
- Sweden: 25 days
- Switzerland: 20 days
Note that these averages can vary significantly by company size, industry, and location, regardless of country. Additionally, paid time off policies can vary based on the team member’s length of service, job level, or other factors. Lastly, some companies offer more paid time off, and others offer less.
Offering generous paid time off policies shows companies value their team members’ well-being and understand the value of time off.
Companies should set clear guidelines and expectations to effectively implement paid time off policies, like defining the minimum and maximum days team members can take off.
Ensure you have a humane paid parental leave policy that allows all new parents and guardians to take time off work. This will enable them to bond with the child or children in their care. The stress and financial burden of childcare can be significantly reduced through adequate paid leave.
Policies on paid parental leave vary from company to company and country to country. The United States, for example, doesn’t require companies to provide a form of parental leave, and policies vary. Some companies offer generous paid leave policies, while others offer none. Most European countries have comprehensive parental leave policies, including paid and unpaid time off.
Providing onsite childcare is another way companies can support team members with young kids who commute to a brick-and-mortar office. Children’s centers on-site can make it easier for team members to drop their kids off and pick them up during the day. Alternatively, some companies reimburse or subsidize team member childcare costs.
A company’s team member assistance program (EAP) helps members manage personal and professional challenges. Many of these programs offer resources and support services, like counseling, financial planning, and legal help.
Employee assistance programs can greatly help people with personal problems, like caring for young kids or elderly relatives, dealing with health issues, or facing financial problems. Additionally, EAPs can help reduce absenteeism and turnover and improve team member well-being.
Overcoming Board and C-Suite Objections to Work-Life Integration Policy Changes
Suppose conversations with executives and board members on the benefits of better work-life integration can’t enact change. In that case, you should instead build a business case on how a better work-life integration will benefit your organization at the macro level. Try to prove increased profitability, reduced labor costs, and improved team member satisfaction. You should incorporate meaningful feedback into your annual team member surveys and organize focus groups and interviews to bring qualitative results to the table.
The benefits can be brought to life in a variety of ways. Listed below are some case studies of work-life changes we discussed:
- Flexible work arrangements: A case study from the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that companies with flexible work arrangements saw improved team member satisfaction, retention, and productivity.
- Telecommuting options: A case study published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research found that telecommuting can lead to increased productivity and job satisfaction and reduced absenteeism and turnover.
- Paid time off (PTO): Research from Frontiers in Psychology found that companies with generous paid time off policies saw improved team member satisfaction and productivity and reduced absenteeism and turnover.
- Paid parental and guardianship leave: A disturbing trend from the World Economic Forum found that even though companies with paid parental and guardianship leave policies saw improved team member retention and satisfaction and increased productivity, companies continue to pull back and reduce paternity leave benefits.
- Onsite childcare: A report on clothing company Patagonia’s onsite childcare program (supported further by holistic research from McKinsey & Company) found that onsite childcare can lead to improved team member retention and satisfaction and increased productivity.
- Employee assistance programs (EAPs): The annual “Workplace Outcome Suite” study from the Employee Assistance Professionals Association found that team member assistance programs can lead to improved team member well-being, productivity, and engagement, as well as reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs.
As we discussed in our last post, promoting healthy work-life integration isn’t a team member issue; it’s a systemic issue involving policies, practices, and culture. Companies can help team members find a work-life integration that promotes a people-first culture by implementing meaningful changes.
What has worked well in your organization? What needs to work better? Let us know in the comments below!
Dr. Teresa Peterson
Dr. Teresa Peterson is the Director of Learning and Development for Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. In her daily work, she serves as Sarah’s key content collaborator. Teresa enjoys facilitating, researching, and is passionate about applying best practices for learning to make our experiences meaningful, engaging, and accessible for all types of learners. Teresa holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Northern Iowa and brings over twenty years of experience teaching, facilitating, and leading to our team. Our clients love Teresa’s grounded energy, depth of thought, and ability to listen deeply.