A Better Fit

It’s time to pull the work-life debate into the 21st century, says Cali Williams Yost ’95.
Simone Silverbush |  September 14, 2012
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Cali Williams Yost ’95 knew that she wanted to be a work-life strategist when she was a student at Columbia Business School. “People thought I was nuts,” she says, “but I knew that work-life issues were radically transforming before our eyes — and that we were going to have to truly change not only how we operated personally, but how we ran our businesses and our public policy.”

Today, Yost is an internationally recognized work-life adviser, author, and speaker. She is the founder and CEO of Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, a flexible work strategy consulting firm whose clients include Ernst & Young, Pearson, the US Navy, and the United Nations. Previously, Yost held senior consulting roles with the Families and Work Institute and Bright Horizons, two of the field’s pioneering organizations.

Yost often lends her perspective to such national media outlets as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and USA Today and also serves as an expert blogger for Fast Company magazine. Her second book, Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day (Center Street/Hachette), will be published in January.

Why is it so important to update the way we talk about work-life balance?

Observing the debate ignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article in the Atlantic in June, I witnessed person after person fall into the classic “all work” or “no work” trap. This limited way of thinking kills any productive conversation about creative, innovative ways to work differently. And that’s the real conversation we need to have.

The way we talk about and take action in our work and life is stuck in 1985, even though increased workloads, advances in technology, economic globalization, and demographic shifts over the last two decades have converged and radically transformed what life on and off the job looks like for all of us, men and women.

This failure to adapt obviously hurts people: more and more workers are feeling burned out on the job and not using vacation time. But it also directly impacts business performance because work and life are now one and the same.

Work-life flexibility is flexibility in how, when, or where work is done. That includes telework, flexible hours, part-time work, contingent work, etc. It means day-to-day informal flexibility as well as more formal plans that officially change the way someone works. Traditionally, it’s been called workplace flexibility, but flexibility on the job won’t succeed if we don’t also consider what’s happening on the “life” side of the equation. For example, to telework, you need the right technology and workspace at home.

What are the business benefits of work-life flexibility?

Organizations that don’t take a serious look at how to embrace the broad benefits of a strategic, business-based approach to work-life flexibility leave money on the table. Studies show, for example, that employees with a high degree of work-life fit are significantly more engaged and more likely to stay on the job — and also that work-life balance is a top priority for job-seeking millennials.

Having HR put a flexible work arrangement policy and toolkit on your website and running a few trainings for managers isn’t going to get you there. Flexible work has to be positioned as a strategic way of operating with managers and employees actively using it to solve day-to-day challenges.

How can professionals plan for successful conversations with their managers about implementing flexible work?

We all need to learn how to flexibly manage our work-life fit every day and at major life transitions (e.g., caring for a sick parent, having a baby, retirement, etc.). Some key steps include: define what you want; align that vision to your work and personal realities; and agree to a trial period that allows the new approach to be reviewed and revised as needed.

You’ve written about the inadequate childcare supports and workplace flexibility at many US organizations. Is real change on the horizon?

The United States lags so far behind many other developed countries in terms of paid family leave and care-giving supports that it’s a competitiveness issue. It’s difficult for men and women to perform consistently, much less keep a job, without reliable, affordable care. Other countries figured this out long ago. In fact, if alumni readers in other parts of the world knew that the United States offers no paid family leave and has no coordinated, national childcare policy, they probably wouldn’t believe it.

Unfortunately, there’s no real change on the horizon. The lack of progress will continue until we all wake up and demand that employers and the government acknowledge the new, modern work-life reality. Childcare funding will remain on the legislative chopping block. Eldercare won’t even be on the radar, even though a tsunami wave of aging relatives who will require care is bearing down on corporations. Eldercare is unpredictable, exhausting, and expensive. Yet there’s little-to-no consistent, affordable care for the aging, and Medicare covers almost nothing. That means employees, both men and women, will be expected to provide, and often pay for, care while trying to work. Many will be forced to quit without more flexibility and support.

How can business leaders drive change?

From an organizational standpoint, encourage communication, creativity, and innovation in the way work is done and life is managed. Let your people work together to come up with win-win flexible solutions. Give them the skills, tools, and resources. Convene a task force of stakeholders critical to the success of work-life flexibility (senior leaders, middle managers, employees, HR, technology, etc.) to oversee the effort.

No individual person or company can address these complex issues on their own; public policy needs to play a role. Challenge the groups that traditionally represent the interests of business in the legislative sphere. Urge them to negotiate in good faith with the advocates who work to promote public policy related to paid leave, childcare, and eldercare. Historically, these two groups have had an adversarial relationship, with the business representatives (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce) taking a very hard line of no support because, “that’s what our members want.”

Finally, I personally think that an MBA is the best degree for managing your work-life fit. You could work for an organization and then go off on your own and run your own business or provide project-based consulting; you could become a venture capitalist or an angel investor. There are a million things you can do with the degree — yet that’s not been part of the value proposition story. Graduates can use their MBAs to take them through the different work-life fit realities of their lives, which is incredibly valuable.

Connect with Yost on her blog at www.worklifefit.com/blog

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