by Gordon Loeb, Natalie Loeb, & David B. Sarnoff, Esq.
Anyone who has recently engaged in hiring has found out that it is a fairly tight labor market and quality candidates are in short supply. While a focus on recruiting is important, equally so is to retain and inspire current employees. This has proven more challenging than many executives, law firm partners, and managers expect. What seems to be a constant theme of discussion in management circles is, how do we provide a culture where work/life balance is encouraged while still holding employees accountable for performance, meeting deadlines, and fulfilling responsibilities? Due to the sensitivities around this topic, the interviewees preferred that they and their companies not be identified.
A senior-level executive at a media company states, “Work/life balance has to be part of the organization’s culture and that is set from the top down.” This executive continues, “It’s about managing the whole person for success, not just the ‘work’ person.” He says many employees are derailed when experiencing personal matters such as marital issues, substance abuse, depression, or an illness with a family member. Executives and managers should show empathy for employees who are experiencing tough times. This also sends a message to other employees that they matter, and the firm has their best interests at heart.
In the media world, there is constant pressure and deadlines and it can be a high stress environment. This executive tells his colleagues and employees, “Take all your vacation time and don’t leave any on the table. You need time to recharge your batteries.” He is not saying that employees shouldn’t work hard. However, he does believe that “managers need to take time and learn about their employees and what they need. Leadership and managing is complicated and hard. The easiest thing is to tell an employee ‘no’.” However, each employee is different, and managers need to engage employees and find out about the “whole” employee; this helps establish culture and leadership.
With respect to “accountability,” the media executive states, “Executives and managers must establish a clear expectation concerning accountability.” Is this a firm where you are expected to respond to emails on weekends? Are employees allowed to leave for their child’s school play? Are managers approachable when employees need to discuss personal matters that are affecting performance? Are executives and partners willing to coach employees for career development or make accommodations that will make employees more productive? This executive sums up that “millennials have made it clear that work/life balance is a priority for them and they want a full life. It should not be a tough issue, but it is for many companies.” Executives and partners will learn that disgruntled employees are not productive, and it is costly and disrupting to lose and replace high performers and high potentials.
Another CEO in a consumer goods company has a different problem. “To be honest, a big part of the conversation revolves around the problem that some employees work too much instead of not enough. This is a particular problem with people who work from home. They often work way more than 40 hours and seem to never be far from work and never really leave it, so burnout is an issue.” He continued, “I used to worry about remote workers goofing off all day but that has seldom been a real problem. Once in a while, but not much. I have more problems with my office staff texting and checking Facebook or doing online shopping.”
He adds, “Culture plays a big role. For us, the culture starts with how we try to foster a supportive atmosphere where it’s okay to make mistakes.” He sums up by noting, “At the end of the day we have to balance the company’s needs to stay afloat and achieve our goals and objectives. I have found that in general it is better to trust people and deal with the occasional abuser than to tighten the screws on everyone and have an uptight culture. Most people are good and want to do the right thing. The few bad apples end up self-selecting out of the system.”
Professional service companies such as law firms and accounting firms provide for other work/life issues. As one law firm partner relayed, “When you bill by the hour, profitability depends on meeting and/or exceeding targeted billing requirements. However, sometimes it feels as if you are only as good as your last monthly revenue generation.” Law firm partners face many challenges in providing for work/life balance because of the nature of the profession. At times, litigation can require significant time demands in engaging in motion practice, depositions, discovery, and preparing for trial. Likewise, transactional practices require significant due diligence, document review, extensive negotiations, and document drafting. Law firm partners seem to be confronting, more and more, a generational disconnect with associates that impacts a balance in work/life culture, policies, and how they are communicated and modeled to employees. We hear from many partners that when they were associates, they “worked grueling hours on a regular basis and that was just an accepted part of the job description.” One law firm partner stated, “I am still waiting to find a junior ‘me’ as an associate, someone dedicated, hardworking, and does what is required.”
The question that needs to be asked is: What is work/life balance? Is it leaders who model this culture for associates and staff to see? For instance, leaving the office at a reasonable hour, not emailing late at night, and taking vacation days? Conversely, is it leaving at a reasonable hour for whatever reason, but working late at night and on weekends to get the work done on time? This is the challenge that companies face. What culture does your organization support? And how does it reinforce this culture?
Law firm associates, in many cases, have voiced concern over working excessive hours and spending time on routine or mundane assignments. Associates want challenging and stimulating assignments, mentoring, and skills development to advance their career potential. Additionally, they want their hours kept in a reasonable range. Some law firms have raised compensation to attract and retain top talent. However, increasing compensation alone doesn’t always lower attrition. Research shows that when compensation is tied to other measures, there is a likelihood of greater job satisfaction.
Specifically, these measures can include the following: 1) Providing stimulating work; 2) Recognizing employees for work done well; 3) Nurturing a culture so that employees believe they are part of something bigger than themselves; and 4) Leaders should explore the goals and aspirations of employees and support the attainment of those goals. Research and studies, including work by B.F. Skinner, bolster the notion that money alone will not inspire and motivate employees in the long term. However, a positive and meaningful culture, paired with professional and personal development will have greater impact.
A company’s work/life balance should be firmly ingrained in the organization’s culture. Culture is established and reinforced by executives and this behavior should be modeled by managers and group leaders. Just remember, leadership and managing employees is hard work, if it is done right.
INFORMATION ON THE AUTHORS:
NATALIE LOEB is the Founder of Loeb Leadership and an Executive Coach.
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org,
866-987-4111, or www.loebleadership.com.
GORDON LOEB is the COO of Loeb Leadership and an Executive Coach.
He can be contacted at email@example.com, 866-987-4111, or www.loebleadership.com.
DAVID B. SARNOFF, ESQ., is the Director of Strategic Partnerships and an Executive Coach for Loeb Leadership. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 866-987-4111, or www.loebleadership.com.