Does Work/Life Balance Really Exist?

14 Aug Does Work/Life Balance Really Exist?

If you do a quick, unscientific look through Glassdoor for reviews on the leading mid-sized PR firms and management consultants, you will spot a troubling trend. The scores for work/life balance seem to sit right in the middle of the scale. Even among award winning firms, balance is usually the lowest score received. Maintaining work/life balance is particularly hard in a consultancy, where the mindset is naturally to make the client happy. The problem is, this mantra is often interpreted as “make the client happy at all costs.” And the cost is often the personal time of employees.


Whose Fault is Lack of Balance?

After working at and with many firms, my educated guess is that some of this falls with the agency as a whole and some with individual team members. At one agency I worked for, the team would have one day a month where they celebrated shutting the lights off at 6pm. 6pm! In most major metros, that still doesn’t get you home much before 7pm, which hardly feels like getting home to your family or evening events early. Add to that the fact that a fair portion of the team still did not make it out the door by 6pm on those nights because there was a fire drill of some kind with a client, and you can see where both sides need to make changes.


What can the Agency Do Better?

Harvard Business Review published a great piece in June titled, Your Flex Work Culture Doesn’t Help Employees If It Hurts Their Careers. In it, researchers summed up decades of research across the business world and found that those trying to strike a balance often experienced a blowback effect from their employer – things like having their career trajectory slowed down and getting negative reviews related to not being in the office all the time. I won’t even go into what happened when I took maternity leave and didn’t check in for six weeks!

Agencies need to institutionalize work/life balance in many ways to make it work. They need to train managers to not insist that everything be handled as if the world depended on it. They need to design more realistic budgets for accounts, so the team is staffed appropriately and not always playing catch up. They also need to take into account the amount they typically “overservice” a client when it comes to figuring out how many team members are needed.

Agencies typically have a metric for how many hours employees are expected to bill. But, that metric often doesn’t take into account internal meetings and trainings that are not billable, nor does it always take into account how much time is written off to stay within budget. For large accounts, it is not atypical for agencies to overservice those accounts by anywhere from 20-40%. It falls to the team to work overtime to meet expectations because staffing plans only account for the billable work, not the overservicing.


What Can Managers Do Better?

I know many PR people who will laugh out loud at this next piece of advice, but managers should be glad to see a timesheet with eight hours a day on it. If you have a reasonable expectation of what eight hours worth of work looks like and are happy with what the employee has delivered in those eight hours, you really shouldn’t ask yourself why that employee rarely accounts for more than eight hours a day. That is the ideal we should all seek. It won’t always happen, but if you truly believe in a work/life balance for your team, you should expect to see those numbers consistently. When you see team members routinely working longer hours, you should find out why and help them solve the problem.

Managers also need to institutionalize balance among their team. Encourage people to leave early if they’ve been working overtime for some good reason like an event or big launch. Even better, hand out comp time so that people feel enabled to take time off and be rewarded for their hard work. Managers should be leaving on time themselves and limiting their check-ins each evening and especially while on vacations.

Managers sometimes forget how influential they can be with their teams, especially if they work in an informal environment. I once had a boss who routinely came in on Saturday mornings to clear off her desk. She did not have kids yet and her husband worked Saturdays so this was how she struck a balance to get home early in the evening. But, the problem was, people on the team started noticing they were getting emails from her on Saturdays, and they felt compelled to answer. If anyone popped into the office on a Saturday, they would find her there, and before you knew it, many people were dropping in on Saturday to get face time with the boss. Managers have to consider how their ability to strike a balance sends subtle and not-so-subtle messages to their teams.

Finally, managers need to set the tone with clients. If you give clients reason to believe the team is there for them 24×7 as a matter of course, you will force people to work long hours. Without slapping them in the face with it, make sure clients know that their teams are available during working hours. Emergencies, and only emergencies, should be dealt with through a call or text, not an expectation that everyone checks email all evening or early in the morning. If you have a client in a different time zone that needs you to be more available, look for team members that are open to having flex hours a few days a week. Make this a benefit rather than a chore, and don’t heap it on top of their already full schedules.


What Employees Can Do Better?

Employees should expect to have a balance and help create an atmosphere where it’s normal. Take lunch without sitting at your desk. Leave on time as consistently as possible. Make it a natural thing so no one, not your team nor your manager, sees it as a surprise. Don’t offer up your free time easily.

The biggest thing employees can do is to communicate well with their clients and teams. The more you communicate and provide updates throughout the day, the less you should be needed for after-hours questions and work. But, it goes without saying, there will be times (ideally few) where after-hours work is needed.

Finally, employees should not be afraid of, and they should certainly not be penalized for,  asking for help. If a client drops a bomb on you at 5pm, don’t feel like you have to shoulder it alone. It may feel like everything rolls to you, but if the agency and managers do what they should, you should have a whole team who could conceivably jump in.

Why This is Important?

This is about more than good reviews on Glassdoor. If management has set good expectations, ideally clients will understand that not every last minute request can be honored. When you do pitch in on an emergency, the clients will also see it as your team going over and above the norm, not execution of a typical expectation.

When an employee or a team has given up time on holidays, travels extensively, or pitches in for the occasional evening work, they appreciate a meaningful gesture to acknowledge their effort. This can be as simple as ordering in dinner, or a little more formal like comp time.   Overworked employees often burn out and leave agencies at an alarming rate, which leads to client disruption and added expense.

Finally, shorter hours tend to make people more productive. At one job, we worked a very 9 to 5 schedule, and at first, it threw me. But, then I embraced it and grew to quickly love it. I got so much more done each day because I knew I had to be super efficient to get it all done. I kept distractions to a minimum and maximized every meeting. It also turned out to be one of the lower stress jobs.

Clearly, this requires a lot of effort to change whatever is going on in your company that infringes on a work/life balance, but if this is one of your selling points to employees, you better deliver the real goods. In the digital age, you can’t get away with paying lip service to something employees hold so dear.

(For the record, SpeakerBox has unlimited PTO and a commitment to work/life balance that I admire. We can always do better, but after many agency and in-house jobs, I think we are doing a great job on honoring our employees’ lives outside work, all while delivering great service to clients. It can be done!)

Robin Bectel
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