“I believe that if you provide the right working environment, people enjoy work,” says Colin Earl, CEO of EnterpriseWizard, a web-based business solutions company in Silicon Valley. This attitude—fueled by the desire to avoid the sort of office politics Earl had experienced at a previous job—greatly influenced the United Kingdom native when he founded his company 20 years ago. The result: telecommuting, a relaxed dress code, and free food on-site are regular options for all his employees.
Although traditional business proponents might dismiss some of these choices as soft or unorthodox, Earl views them as necessary to the bottom line. If you offer your workers more flexibility and a better work/life balance, the chances are greater that they will be happier and more productive. In this vein, happy workers translate into healthy profit margins.
For employees with family obligations such as children or ailing relatives, having a work schedule that affords flexibility can be a lifesaver. But like other things in life deemed too good to be true, this goodwill needed to be harnessed correctly by small business owners lest they be abused. Telecommuters who routinely take off hours during the workday to attend to personal matters, or who otherwise fudge the number of hours dedicated to a project, for instance, are not good for the morale of other staffers—or the bottom line.
“The main thing is to make sure that the employee’s self-interest is aligned with the business self-interest and vice versa,” advises Earl. At the same time, he adds that it’s critical for small business owners to create a culture in which employees know that if they blunder, they will be penalized just as they will be rewarded if they do well.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, not having an equitable work/life balance continues to rankle employees. Among the findings, nearly nine in ten working Americans say work/life balance is a problem, and over half—54 percent—called it a “significant” problem. In addition, 43 percent of workers do not think that their employer is doing enough to address work/life balance issues.
To address this issue, businesses are increasingly turning to flexible hours and work from home solutions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 nearly one quarter— 24 percent—of all employed persons did some or all of their work at home. (Men and women were about equally likely to telecommute.) Perhaps not surprisingly, entrepreneurs are leading this trend, as the BLS found that self-employed workers were three times more likely than salaried workers to have worked from home—64 percent vs. 19 percent.
Erik Huberman, CEO of Swag of the Month, a year-old retail discount company with a staff of eight based in Santa Monica, California, echoes Earl’s sentiments about accommodating workers to improve their work/life balance.
“If you are going to allow for flextime and remote work, make sure work is more about deliverables and specific goals,” he notes. “If you make it an hours thing, it’s easy for employees to get distracted. If they know what is expected of them, they will generally rise to the occasion.”
Cultivate the virtual world
To allow busy staffers to be occasionally off-site to tend to a personal obligation, train them in web-based programs such as Salesforce.com, Quickbooks Online and Google Docs. This will give them the tools to continue working when they’re not on-site and meet project goals without being at their desk or at a sales counter.
For James Sinclair, a principal at OnSite Consulting, a nine-year-old nationwide hospitality consulting firm, giving up office space three years ago and going virtual has been a boon for him and his staff of 65 full- and part-timers. Not only has it drastically lowered overhead costs for Sinclair’s business, but, according to him, it has also increased revenues by having employees in the field at all times.
“The ‘lightbulb’ moment came because I was virtual anyway,” recalls Sinclair. “I spend 200-plus days on the road so I had been virtual for years and been using a hodgepodge of technology to get data access anywhere, be paperless, and stay in touch with project management.” Coincidently, the lease renewal on the company’s office came up for renewal and because clients rarely visited, Sinclair thought the timing was auspicious to make the shift to virtual.
Using Microsoft’s Office 365 technology platform, which aggregates all documents and communications into one hub, Sinclair and his staff now work wherever they are. The end results have been worth it, he says.
“Now staff is managed on goals met and not hours worked or schlepping to the office,” he continues. “The result is that people became more available, more passionate about work, and more thrilled to be working for me and vice versa. My employee efficiency skyrocketed and, above all, I now have an advantage against my competitors. They could lure my staff with more money, but not with the lifestyle I can afford [my employees].”
Think like a maverick
If you’re serious about implementing ways to improve your employee’s work/life balance, then you will need to think creatively. Further, ask yourself how these changes will be both in your company’s and in your employee’s best interests.
“Disregard the norm,” urges Earl. For instance, in his ongoing quest to appeal to both his employees’ and his company’s best interests, Earl says he offers his staff free food.
“People tend to work a little later when they’re not hungry,” he says. “When it’s 5 p.m. and they have a snack they’re more likely to work until 6 p.m. I’ve been to companies where employees had to pay for their own coffee.”
Improving an employee’s work/life balance hinges on how flexible a small business owner is willing to be. Taking the time to be clear with your staff about expectations is key to your success in managing any new work arrangements. Expect a few hiccups in the beginning, but keep in mind that in our world of 24/7 instant communication, allowing flexibility for your employees has never been easier.
If you are thinking of offering telecommuting as a viable option for your employees, check out the following articles for helpful tips.
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