Redesigned work improves


E mployees, managers, and companies face ever-increasing economic, business, job, and often personal pressures. This culture puts employees’ work and personal lives at odds, but new evidence shows work and personal realms may be able to cooperate for mutual benefit.

A recent study, "Holding a Job, Having a Life: Strategies for Change," demonstrates how some companies and employees are using improved work-life programs to boost business performance and address employees’ personal needs. The two-year study was conducted by the Work in America Institute (WAI, Scarsdale, N.Y.), a non-profit research and membership organization that studies workplace issues.

Molding managers’ mindsets

T he ability of work-life programs to redesign work and make cultural changes depends on managers’ willingness to listen and act on employee feedback. However, many managers may feel threatened by a participatory change process, which they can perceive as a loss of control, rather than an opportunity to improve work effectiveness, according to "Holding a Job, Having a Life: Strategies for Change" by the Work in America Institute. The study states managers need to know that work-life programs can free up manager’s time, require less oversight from them, and give them more time for business planning.

Study participants Bank of America, Merck & Co., and First Tennessee Bank reported that managers needed extensive coaching to deal effectively with employee feedback and involvement. Statistics Canada adds it secures line managers’ support of employees’ flexible working hours, training, and career development by making that support part of managers’ performance reviews, and by encouraging a mobile internal job market that allows staff to move to other jobs in the organization if their manager isn’t supportive.

Besides adding support for work-life programs to managers’ reviews, the study recommends that companies find better ways to measure that support and set up more explicit rewards for supportive leaders.

The 10 firms profiled found that truly encouraging employee involvement fuels innovation and creativity; adopting a collaborative work-life strategy improves retention, productivity, customer service, and absenteeism; while employee-driven solutions help reduce workloads, overtime, stress, and increase flexibility and family and leisure time. These companies enlisted employees to redesign core processes, redefine organizational culture, and align work-life efforts with corporate strategies and human resource procedures. Because these new work-life programs weren’t simply imposed from the top, they gained much stronger buy-in from participants, and unleashed far more individual and team creativity.

Some experiences reported by the profiled companies included:

  • After requiring its field technicians to handle customer requests within two hours on a round-the-clock basis, Hewlett-Packard allowed them to redesign their work process and schedule. The new, more flexible schedule maintains service standards, but allows employees time off without being on call so they can turn off their beepers.


  • Work teams at Agilent Technologies’ Lightwave Division recently restructured the finance department so it could respond more effectively to customers’ changing demands and increased flexibility with part-time scheduling and telecommuting.


  • Line workers at Kraft Foods’ pizza plant (Sussex, Wis.) developed a team-based system and more predictable scheduling that boosted production, reduced overhead costs and downtime, and improved recruitment and retention.


  • Ernst & Young estimates it saved $17 million in reduced retention costs during 1997-98 by adopting work-life strategies, such as collaboratively reducing travel days and evenly distributing workloads. One new rule says no one is required to check e-mail or voice mail on weekends or vacations.

The study also showed that, though data supports work-life programs’ bottom line contributions, measurement is needed to back them up. The study concludes that sustaining work-life programs depends on: building a broader understanding of how they aid business and personal goals; developing support and participation on all company levels; and creating tools that allow other parts of the organization to implement work-life changes.

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