Family-friendly workplaces are a great idea – you want a place where people feel comfortable taking an hour or two out of a day to go to a parent-teacher conference, or with a schedule that means you won’t be working until 9:00 at night.
But, why on earth do we need to call this family-friendly? Sure, childless people don’t need to go to parent-teacher conferences, but otherwise, their lives are just as busy and full. What we need are “life-friendly” workplaces.
I didn’t coin this phrase myself – I read it in a Facebook post a while ago, and it stuck with me. When we focus on “family-friendly,” we’re excluding a considerable portion of the workforce. Let’s change the focus to “life-friendly” workplaces.
Most people will have kids at one point in their lives, but if we assume 40 years of working, you only have kids at home for 25 or so of those – and that’s if you have multiple kids. (Of course, if you’re like my friend who had her first baby at 22 and her last at 45, your entire working life is with kids at home, but she’s not the norm.) Most people are going to have substantial portions of their adult working lives without kids at home.
Family-friendly programs often focus on helping people with small children and excluding people without children or older children. When a company spends a fortune offering on-site daycare, that’s fantastic but not an overall retention solution.
Here’s what you can do to make your company more “life-friendly.”
1. Change as you go
Companies with 30,000 employees have people in all stages of life and need to have the programs to meet everyone’s needs. But, smaller companies – with 10, 25, or 100 people, can go through phases.
A startup with four recent college grads working together may have zero children and zero spouses. Life-friendly for that group will look a lot different from that company in three years that has expanded to 15 people and six children under five.
A company with a stable workforce may celebrate the engagement, marriage, birth of two children, and the marriage of those children with the same long term employees. The needs change.
Don’t set your policies and practices in stone. Expect that they will change as your business changes and as your workforce fluctuates. It’s okay to make changes to keep your current employees happy.
2. The child-free don’t have to do all the weekend and night work
If you have a nice, 9:00 to 5:00 company, everyone is in and out, and there isn’t a big concern about work-life balance. But, a lot of companies have emergencies, long hours, and the occasional weekend marathon. Family-friendly then often devolves into John will do it; he doesn’t have kids. That is not a life-friendly company.
I’m not arguing you should close your doors at 5:00, regardless of what your clients need, but you need to balance all the employees’ needs and wants. It’s perfectly fine if John volunteers to take the weekend shift, but it’s not acceptable to assign John because everyone else has kids.
If no one volunteers, the crappy shifts and the late nights are shared equally – end of story. If there are too many of these terrible shifts and late nights, then you need to rethink your model. Or, you need to stop declaring that you care about your employees.
It’s okay if you want to do that – big public accounting firms very loudly proclaim that their employees will work 80 hours a week during tax season, and that’s all there is to it. But, when you take the job, that’s clear. If you want to do that, do it, but compensate well and explain it in your selection process.
3. Flexibility is for any reason
We’re super compassionate for Jane, the single mom, who has child care issues. And we should be compassionate – single parenting is hard. A life-friendly employer also has compassion for John, the single guy, who does competitive sports (back in, you know, the dark ages of 2019 when we did things outside of the house.)
To be a life-friendly employer, John gets permission to start work at 10:00 so that he can do his sports training just as Jane clocks out at 4:30 to pick up her kids from daycare. The why isn’t as important as the recognition that every employee has a life outside the office.
With the Covid shutdowns (and my country, Switzerland, just implemented a whole bunch of new shut down rules), everyone has learned that businesses can be more flexible than we once thought. Suddenly, everyone had to change a zillion things about how they worked, and we did it. So, when an employee asks for flexibility, respond, “Let’s figure out how to make this work,” and not, “Sorry, flexibility is only for parents.”
4. The little perks don’t matter as much as you might think
All the Silicon Valley Tech companies have (or used to have, given that most people are working from home) a zillion perks like free meals, laundry, ping pong, whatever. It sounds very life-friendly, but it also keeps employees in the office and not enjoying life. Free dinner on the one night a month you have to work late is a lot better than conniving to keep everyone there all the time.
5. Happy employees, good profits
Engaged employees have a higher productivity level. Happy employees are more likely to be engaged employees. In other words, keeping your employees happy leads to more productivity.
A life-friendly organization doesn’t shut down and let people play all the time, but they do work to keep employees happy and well balanced. They recognize that people in all different life stages need and want the flexibility to live their lives outside the office.
The next time you want to talk about how you make employees’ lives better, try the phrase “life-friendly” rather than “family-friendly” because we all have lives.
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