Not every office can function like a Silicon Valley tech company – permitting staffers to work wherever and whenever they please, and lessening that daily sensation of teetering along a balance beam…or juggling plates…or insert work-life balance cliché here. But most workplaces can do better at creating flexible policies that allow employees to have a life separate from work. We recently asked a group of experts – what’s something that every company can do to make that work-life balance easier?

Kathleen Hicks, Senior Vice President; Henry A. Kissinger Chair; Director, International Security Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies

It may seem ironic that one of the best ways a leader can create flexibility for her workforce is to create predictability.  In the trenches of the Washington national security establishment, chaos frequently reigns. It suffocates flexibility in spite of the best leadership intentions.  Interagency decision processes are notable for their fits and starts, and national and international events upend the best-laid plans.  Many workplaces across the country share this backdrop of systematic disorder, even if driven by different circumstances.  Not only does it create obvious direct flexibility costs in cancelled commitments, the interruption of late night calls, and quick-turn deliverables that displace other work, it also indirectly promotes a smart phone-addicted, “butts-in-seats” culture that fears the consequences of an unattended office.

When so many variables are beyond the immediate organization’s control, what is a leader to do?  The answer is to fix variables wherever possible to protect workers’ autonomy and flexibility.  Minimize all but unavoidable scheduling changes, set expectations for meetings to begin and end on time, establish a culture of rotation through tough, time-consuming assignments, and ensure formal back-up arrangements for all staff.  A good mantra is this:  “We may live in chaos, but we will not contribute to it.”

Leslie Hammer, Director of the Center for Work-Family Stress, Safety, and Health

When a group of researchers  from the Work, Family, & Health Network and I conducted the largest work-family intervention  study to date looking at improving the work environment, we found that there are two key levers for improving the workplace environment (which leads to reduced work-life stress): 1) Train managers and supervisors to be more supportive of employees’ work and non-work responsibilities and 2) Give workers more control over their work hours.  While companies may do one or the other, our findings demonstrate that focusing on both providing managers with tools for improving workplace support for work and non-work (i.e., taking your kid to a doctor’s appointment), and providing workers increased control over their work, leads to the most effective outcomes. Our preliminary findings indicate that  workers report better health, improved job satisfaction and lower intentions to leave the company, with more findings to come!

Cali Williams Yost, Founder and CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc.

De-perk, de-gender and de-parent the approach to work life flexibility. If we stop talking about work life flexibility as a “perk” or “benefit,” primarily for women and moms, women – and men– may be less hesitant to use it.

The numbers support this outlook: According to our recent telephone survey of a national probability sample of full-time U.S. workers, 31 percent of respondents said they did most of their work “at a remote location.” When almost one-third of work is done from home, a coffee shop or other location, flexibility is not an optional perk or benefit.  It’s a core operating strategy for businesses.

When we drilled down further, we found that nearly three out of four of those remote-primary workers were men. And, there was no statistically significant difference between parents and non-parents who said they telework most of the time.

Interestingly, women were significantly more likely (43 percent) than men (27 percent) to say they did most of their work from a cube or open office space.  When compared to remote-primary workers (mostly men), these primarily female cube/open office dwellers were significantly more likely to say they didn’t “use or improve their work life flexibility” because it “might hurt your career/others think you don’t work as hard.”

Melvin White, Lead Counsel for Litigation & Risk Management at Clearspire Law Co

Every company should create a work environment that does not require employees to abandon their efforts to lead healthy and full lives. The world’s best workplaces demonstrate the success of these practices.  Providing employees flexibility to respond to life’s responsibilities while attaining or surpassing company goals is possible for every company.

Here are some best practices for implementing that goal: (1) allow employees to work flexible schedules; (2) evaluate and compensate employees based on quality of results rather than time spent; (3) reward collaboration and collegiality; (4) discourage back-biting and other aggressive behavior; (5) leverage technology to enhance collaboration and connectivity; (6) truly embrace inclusion and diversity; (7) have a formal mentoring program and encourage the development of informal mentoring relationships; (8) invite and value employees’ opinions and suggestions; (9) evaluate for results; (10) continue to innovate; and, (11) ensure that top level management actively supports the goal.

Anthony Curcio, Principal, Summit LLC

Flexibility is born of strategy and culture, not from rules in the employee handbook. Workplaces should focus on the needs of their clients, recruiting and retaining the brightest staff, and holding staff accountable for outcomes. Employers should pay less attention to egos, turf, and control.

In our business of high-end analytics consulting, we compete in two markets simultaneously: the market for our services where we are selling, and the market for top talent where we are buying. To win the talent that my clients crave, I must prioritize skills and performance, not the location of their workstation. Secondary details like “can I work from home 3-4 days per month?” just don’t matter to me if they have the other rare qualities that I need.

To be sure, flexible companies need some ground rules: No day at home is “guaranteed” (if the client needs you in person, you’ve got to go), you must answer the phone, and keep the background noise to a minimum.  Additionally, working remotely is more appropriate for staff with at least five to seven years’ experience, not folks right out of school who have a more acute need for personal mentoring and a sense of belonging.  Finally, be ready to let someone go if they aren’t producing, regardless of where they sit.  Think clients and outcomes, not turf and control. Flexibility comes naturally after that.

Beach work image via Shutterstock.