Why NPR’s Segment Is Really About “Employers Make Room for Strategic Flexibility” (Not Work-Life Balance)

Like many, I let out a little cheer whenever a mainstream media outlet discusses the realities of managing work and life in our new work+life flex normal.   But I am consistently amazed how the real story is often lost behind the traditional language and mindset that’s not kept pace with reality.  The first segment of NPRs three part series, “More Employers Make Room for Work-Life Balance,” is an interesting case in point.

First let me join the chorus of those high fiving NPR for covering the topic!  It’s important.  But it’s also another missed opportunity to update the way we think about work and life, and position flexibility as a strategic imperative for employers and individuals.

Let’s deconstruct, update and reframe the important themes from the first segment…

Theme #1:  It’s About Strategic Flexibility

While the employer interviewed at the beginning of the NPR segment sounds like a very nice person, her real motivation for offering flexibility is that, “People who have lives are much better workers.”   Her focus wasn’t on her employees’ individual work+life fit realities (that’s not her concern), it was on the outcomes—more productivity and retention.  And those outcomes are achieved by offering flexibility, not a particular work-life “balance.”

Why it matters: Our employers can’t give us work-life balance.  All they can do is create a flexible culture and operating model that lets us manage our unique work+life fit in a way that meets our needs and the needs of the business.  No matter how nice an employer might be, there must be a strategic business imperative behind any flexibility or it will be unsustainable.

Also, the business impacts should be as broad and deep as possible up front and go beyond individual work+life fit.  Same flexibility, multiple business and individual benefits that can include working smarter, servicing clients better, managing global teams, disaster preparedness, controlling operating costs, etc.

Theme #2: It’s a Process That Considers the Unique Realities of the Individual, Job and Business

The flexibility discussed in the segment and in the accompanying SHRM study is referred to as a “policy,” or a “benefit.”  But really it’s a process that flexibly adjusts how, when and where work is done.

Every person interviewed in the segment had a different work+life fit that they achieved for distinct reasons.  And their jobs uniquely supported the type of flexibility they pursued.  The only way to determine what type of flexibility is going to work for a particular person and a specific job is through a process that supports the analysis.  Not a check-the-box benefit.

People say, “But what about consistency?”  Consistency comes from having access to the same process to analyze your unique realities and come up with a plan that’s going to work for you and your job.  A good analogy is the compensation.  Same process.  Different inputs.  Unique raises and bonuses.

Guaranteeing the same type of flexibility for everyone with a one-size-fits all policy sounds fair, but doesn’t work.   As the NRP segment notes:  Not every person wants every type of flexibility.  Not every job supports all types of flexibility.  And not every type of flexibility fits neatly into the standard, rigid flexible work options.  What about the person who telecommutes once a week and shifts his or her hours?  Is that two different options or one tailored flexible plan?

Additionally, not every business can accommodate a results-only work environment where there are no hours, and no set meetings.  Again, focusing on results and not face-time is a very important objective, but how an organization gets there in terms of strategic flexibility will look different for each business.

Why it matters: The NPR segment accurately noted, “Experts caution that many flex-work programs appear more generous on paper than in practice.”  I agree.  As long as flexibility is a benefit or policy, it will continue to sit on a website outside of the day-to-day operations.  It will look nice and sound good, but will have limited impact.

The only way flexibility will ever become a real, meaningful part of every employer’s operating model is if it is a tailored, process-based strategy that is developed by the employees and leaders of a particular business.

Theme #3:  It’s a Work+Life Flexibility Revolution

I agree with Phyllis Moen, the highly regarded sociologist quoted in the segment, “We are in the middle of something like an industrial revolution.”  But it’s not a “work-time revolution.”  It’s a work+life flexibility revolution.

Why it matters: We need to shift our mindset and language to acknowledge that work and life are one in the same.   We can’t talk about a revolution in work-time without acknowledging a related and reciprocal revolution in how we manage our time outside of work.   And it’s not just about time.  Yes, there’s an increased need for flexibility in the hours that we work, but there also needs to be flexibility in how we work, and where we work.  Taken together it’s a work+life flexibility revolution.

The deconstructed, updated and reframed takeaways from the first segment of NPR’s three part series are: It’s about strategic flexibility based on a tailored process that considers the needs of the individual, job and business.  And it’s part of a work+life flexibility revolution. Now, let’s see if the remaining segments hit these points more directly.  Here’s hoping!

One last interesting point.  NPR uses the SHRM study of “Flexible Working Benefits Offered By Some U.S. Companies” as supporting data.   However…

  1. Missing from the SHRM study’s list are reduced schedules and day-to-day flexibility.  These are two important types of flexibility that should be part of any organization’s strategy, and
  2. Considering the fact that work+life flexibility is essentially missing from SHRM national conference agenda, how can its research offer a path to a more strategic, forward-thinking conversation about flexibility?  Just a question.

What do you think?  Why don’t we update our language and approach to work and life and flexibility to be more strategic?  Do you think it matters?  Why?

Join me! I will appear live on Friday, March 19th at 4:00 pm ET/ 1:00 pm PST on Maggie Mistal’s radio show on the Martha Stewart Radio Network Sirius 112/ XM 157.  Topic:  How to Manage Your Work+Life Fit Heading Back to Work After a Layoff. Click here to sign up for a free 7 day trial of Sirius/XM and listen.

11 thoughts on “Why NPR’s Segment Is Really About “Employers Make Room for Strategic Flexibility” (Not Work-Life Balance)

  1. Cali,
    It is great to hear NPR and other important news outlets reporting on Work-life issues– but isn’t it funny that these outlets are still ‘behind’ in terms of the cutting edge thinking in the field?
    I appreciate both your restatements of the old views into new language, and the explanation of why it matters. There’s less progress in talking about the future with out of date language than there is in challenging each other to focus on the positive reasons for flexibility– because it makes both business and personal sense.

  2. Great article!

    Let’s just hope that the semantics don’t take over the bigger issue–namely, what are employers and employees doing to create relationships that are mutually beneficial.

    I’ve just launched a work/life balance business geared primarily towards men, who usually fail to (outwardly) acknowledge that this is a problem.

    Cameron Phillips

    1. Cameron, welcome to the work+life conversation! Together we will make a difference for everyone–including fathers.

  3. hey cali,

    i was wondering about your take on this npr story!

    i get where cameron’s coming from, and sometimes we do settle into semantics wars (think: engagement). at the same time, language leads to attitude leads to behavior. so, it matters and should seek to clarify but stop short of overwhelming, dividing, and rebuking.

    for me, the business owner who gets that flexibility is a business strategy and applies flexibility in a variety of ways to suit her and her employees’ needs can say it any ol’ way she likes because what she’s doing is head-and-tails above what most companies are doing right now. she’s a real-life example we can point to and say: here, this is what work+life fit looks like.


    1. Agree…language is important because it leads to attitudes which leads to behavior. Everyone should be free to approach the issue in the way in which they feel most comfortable; however, my experience has been that shifting the approach and the way work+life flexibility is discussed can have a very powerful impact of moving it from nice to have perk or policy to powerful strategic lever. Thanks Fran for your important insights!

  4. Hi Cali, My view is that language is a powerful piece in the shift-in-thinking process.
    Appropriate reframing of work-life concepts with language that prods the process along in the minds of all the players makes it important.

  5. These are my two critical take-aways from your post. You’ve gone exactly where I am headed. “The only way flexibility will ever become a real, meaningful part of every employer’s operating model is if it is a tailored, process-based strategy that is developed by the employees and leaders of a particular business.” and “As long as flexibility is a benefit or policy, it will continue to sit on a website outside of the day-to-day operations. It will look nice and sound good, but will have limited impact.”

    NPR illustrated the strategic drivers in their Millennials and Baby-boomers examples, even if they didn’t label it as such. Which automatically leads to these sound business initiatives becoming inculcated in an organization’s strategic DNA as a way of doing profitable and sustainable business, not as some little side benefit ill-publicized and haphazardly applied.

    Great analysis, Cali. Hooray NPR for this series. Let’s see what else they can come up with.

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