It’s no easy task for companies to encourage work-life balance for their employees: Different people define balance in separate ways.
Perceptions of balance vary by country and region. And policies may differ for staff with tasks that can be done from outside the office from those who must work inside.
Microsoft has found some practices that help foster balance, and its senior human resources manager for Latin America shared those tips at the May 6 meeting of WorldCity’s HR Connections. Emre Memecan drew from his experience working in his native Turkey, in the Americas and from annual employee surveys at the global software company.
“Managers play a critical role,” both in leading by example and in how they treat their employees, Memecan told the group.
Employees generally don’t mind working hard or staying late for vital projects. But surveys show they feel their balance suffers when bosses change priorities last-minute or apply pressure to rush tasks without what they can understand to be a good reason.
Microsoft therefore trains managers to set clear work priorities and to give employees reasonable time to complete tasks, Memecan said.
The software company also gives employees laptop computers to work from home or wherever they’d like, as long as the employee is not required for face-to-face meetings. Managers are encouraged to evaluate their staff on results, not whether they see them working at the office, Memecan added.
But how does Microsoft hold managers accountable to foster work-life balance?, asked Laura Quevedo, HR director for Latin America for liquor giant Diageo. In Latin America, many employees feel they must stay late like their bosses do, because leaving earlier may look bad, she said.
At Microsoft, managers receive a score on their performance reviews based partly on what their employees say about work-life balance under that supervisor, Memecan said. That means to some extent, “the employees have to take responsibility for their own work-life balance,” he added.
Encouraging balance sometimes finds obstacles within big companies, however.
Legal departments may raise questions about liability if employees work offsite and have an accident, said Deborah Hernandez, human resources director for North America for LAN Cargo.
Top executives also may downplay work-life balance issues as “nice” but not critical, unless they see more tangible benefits for the business, such as proof that greater balance helps retain talent and adds to the bottom line, said Lazaro Acosta, Burger King’s HR chief for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The day we can put some metrics behind it is the day that companies will take this seriously,” Acosta said.
Software maker SAP International has found ways to help foster balance, with little “push back.” For example, it encourages employees when possible to travel on Mondays and return on Thursdays from business trips, so they can fill out reports Friday and enjoy weekends with their families.
(Five of WorldCity’s six event series are held on Fridays, understanding this is the most likely day for traveling multinational executives to be in town. in 2011, all six will be on Fridays.)
When it assigns consultants to another country for extended stays that can last for months, it also pays for the family to visit the consultant at least once, so the employee is not commuting home as often and the family can see where the consultant is working, said Marcelo Carvalho, a human resources business partner with the software company.
SAP also looks at ways to make its work flow more efficient – with less paperwork and less duplication — so that employees can save time on tasks. Employees sometimes work long hours, because paperwork is “too bureaucratic, and processes and systems weak,” Carvalho said.
Still, there’s no single definition for the optimal balance between work and time off the job. Perceptions sometimes differ by world region.
At Microsoft’s Latin American headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, some employees view staying late at the office as good for your career. But in Turkey, you’re supposed to build strong friendships with colleagues and socialize out of the office. Colleagues in Istanbul go out to dinner, “talk business all the time, and it’s not seen as poor for your work-life balance,” Memecan said.
In Brazil’s Sao Paulo, meanwhile, many people come to work after 10:30 a.m. and leave after 9 p.m. to avoid the horrendous rush-hour traffic. Some also stay at the office rather than telecommute, because they don’t want to run the risk of the computer being stolen in a carjacking on the way home, Carvalho said.
HR Connections is one of six event series hosted by WorldCity to bring together executives from multinational companies to discuss international business topics. It is sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business Administration. The next event is set for July 16.