Expert: Work/Life Initiatives Start At The Top

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Influencing organizational leaders is the top priority in making lasting, effective organizational changes aimed at meeting the need of today’s workforce for flexibility, says Brad Harrington, director of Boston College Center for Work & Family.

It must be part of a three-prong approach that includes helping individuals manage their careers and effective HR policies and programs that allow for work/life initiatives, he said during a Sept. 9, 2008, web conference.

When working with organizational leaders, he said it’s important to understand that “a lot of people still think of work/life as ‘work/life equals work less.’

“And if organizational leaders think that way, then their tendency will be to say ‘in a time when we’re trying to get more from people and we’re cutting our staff and trying to get more productivity how can work/life possibly help us and help our employees be more productive.’”

For one, he thinks it will help retain top talent “which ultimately has to be the goal for organizations that want to keep and maintain high levels of productivity.”

Another obstacle to overcome with top leaders, he said, is that some consider work/life initiatives as an employee-centric perk.

“It isn’t an employee-centric perk; it’s a new way of working that basically says we’re going to fit the work to the individual, not just to the organizational needs.”

Harrington is a Society for Human Resource Management member whose career has focused on individual and organizational change. His background includes 20 years at Hewlett-Packard working in quality improvement, HR, education and organizational development. He has been with the Carroll School of Management at Boston College since 2000.

“This is simply everyone’s issue to deal with,” he said of work/life initiatives. He based his web conference remarks on findings from The Work-Life Evolution Study that the center released in 2007. The most critical workplace trends it found that “impact the way we think about workforce management,” Harrington said, are:

  • Generational diversity, aging workforce.
  • A more diverse workplace (gender, race, ethnicity, religion), especially among global organizations.
  • Increasing workloads, the resulting stress and the correlation to the dramatic increase in health care costs.
  • Globalization. The complexity that arises from working across cultures and countries with different time zones and languages; creation of a 24/7 workplace.
  • Growing importance of work/life initiatives to older workers and Generations X and Y.
  • Pervasive use of technology and working virtually. Technology invades “people’s home to the point where they no longer really have a domicile where they’re away from work.”

The Protean Career

These trends point to the importance of initiating work/life initiatives into an organization, according to Barrington. Workers, especially in younger generations, are “looking at success in a much different way than we have in the past,” he said.

“What we need is [top] managers who understand that some people do want to work lots and lots of hours—way beyond the norm—because they have high levels of quality or they have high levels of organizational aspirations, but that’s not for everybody. What we have to do is understand that individual solutions are going to work better in the future than organizational ones.”

Being more open to work/life initiatives involves training managers in what he called a “protean career concept.”

In a protean career, he explained, “people can shift and shape the career they’re looking for based on their needs, taking into account what the organization needs but not allowing the organization to dictate ‘this is what you shall do in order to be successful in the organization.’”

This will be important as workers who traditionally would be retired from the workforce opt to continue working, he noted. He pointed to prognostications that by 2025 about 42 states will have people 65 and older comprising 18 percent of their populations.

Work/life initiatives also address employees’ personal issues, such as time to care for young children or aging parents.

In addition, the workplace’s growing globalization “will have a dramatic impact on workforce management and a major impact on how we view work/life,” he said.

Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, for example, have more generous governmental polices on family leave, versus the United States, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Align Work/Life with Strategies

Work/life initiatives fall into different areas depending on an organization’s perspective, Barrington said.

They can be part of the recruitment strategy for an organization wanting to become an employer of choice; a diversity strategy to promote women’s advancement; a total rewards strategy; a strategy to retain top talent; or a health and wellness strategy if the focus is stress reduction, he said.

To influence leaders in your organization, Barrington recommended:

  • Make the business case for work/life initiatives through data, research and anecdotal evidence.
  • Train managers on how to use flexible management approaches.
  • Use surveys and focus groups to demonstrate the importance of work/life in retaining talent.
  • Train all managers and subordinates in career-life planning.
  • Support pioneer leaders and enlist them in making the case for work/life balance.
  • “Don’t assume managers know how to manage [work/life] effectively,” Harrington said. “We have to train managers on how to do that” for their own careers as well as for those they supervise.


A recording of the web conference, “Meeting the Needs of Today's Workforce: Culture, Flexibility and Careers”, is available by going to the center’s web site at

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.