A friend of mine with a small child visited last night and looked so relaxed that I questioned her about it. She explained that she was on vacation and that the South Florida pharmaceutical company she works for has closed for the next 2 ½ weeks. “Our CEO believes we need to rest and rejuvenate to come back strong in the new year,” she said. “We are going to close again for two weeks in July.”
I was impressed.
Some organizations have come to realize that by providing better work/life balance options for their employees, the company benefits, too. More important, they have discovered that it takes not only work/life options or policies, but someone at the top to shape company culture in a way that encourages employees to use them.
“CEO and managers have more influence than they think they do,” says David Hassell, CEO of 15Five, a San Francisco company that builds software to improve employee engagement. “I think they see that most of their employees are checked out, and that’s a big problem.”
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In 2015, we have seen an increasing number of nationally known CEOs make bold statements about work/life through their actions. One area they focused on is quality time off.
In Plantation, the corporate offices of DHL Express Americas, Stephen Fenwick, CEO, says he completely has bought into the “no email on weekends” practice introduced by DHL global CEO Ken Allen. Fenwick says an email from a senior executive easily can get forwarded to dozens of others and create stress on the weekend for everyone over something that could have waited until Monday. Now, he catches himself about to send an email and will hold off until Monday to push send. Allen is encouraging top executives in all its countries with operations to help build a culture in which weekends are for personal enjoyment — even in a time-sensitive business. Managers are encouraged to pick up the phone if something truly is urgent.“It’s a big mind-set change. For the most part, people are sticking to it and benefiting from it,” Fenwick says
Last month, Jerry Stritzke, president and CEO of REI, in Kent, Washington, sent a message that he believes in leisure time when he announced that the outdoors retail company would close its 143 stores on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday to give employees time off to spend with family and friends, encouraging them to enjoy the outdoors.
Another big CEO statement centered on paternity leave. While companies adopted an assortment of work/life practices in 2015, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made strides toward creating a culture where family leave is acceptable when he announced he would take time off when his first child was born. Paternity leave has been an area where, even when men are offered paid leave, they fear the stigma and don’t take it, or at least not for any substantial period of time. Zuckerberg’s personal decision to take two months off to spend with his new daughter sent a message to Facebook’s new fathers that taking their four months’ paid leave would not be a career-limiting move.
Some CEOs saw vacation as an area where they wanted to make a statement. Seeing employees struggle with staying connected on vacation, Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post, made an organization-wide effort to encourage more refreshing breaks. This summer, Huffington announced that her organization had developed a new tool, created by the company’s techies, to prevent the need for employees to check email on vacation if they desire. Huffington then announced she personally was using the tool on a family trip to Greece. The tool automatically deletes or archives any messages received for the duration of the time an employee has an out-of-office responder in place. “The bottom line is that we all need downtime,” Huffington told staffers in an email.
When it comes to promoting flexible work, there’s nothing more powerful than a CEO declaring that they work flexibly. In 2015, CEOs at banks, law firms, accounting firms and technology companies publicly discussed how they use flex schedules and defined what that means in the context of their organizations.
Clearly CEOs — often the least likely to achieve work/life balance — have an incentive for the messages they are sending. A report released this month by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., found strong evidence that firms that offer a wider range of work/life-balance practices and create a culture of leadership that supports their use achieve higher levels of sales relative to other firms.
In today’s knowledge economy, the work keeps coming, and there always is more to do. CEOs whose actions tell staff their personal lives are important send a reassuring message that they see the benefits for all.
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on workplace and work life issues. Connect with her @balancegal, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit worklifebalancingact.com.