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What Will First Lady Michelle Obama’s Work-Life Balance Efforts Look Like?

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We have heard for some time that Michelle Obama’s pet concerns on the campaign trail, which she hoped to be able to continue while in the White House – and will indeed be able to after last week’s dramatic election finish for her husband, President-Elect Barack – are helping families create a healthy work/life balance and easing the struggles for military families.

It’s no wonder the former is an issue that’s close to Mrs. Obama’s heart.  This article from the UK-based Telegraph newspaper talks about her own work/life balance struggles, in three distinct phases of her life: while growing up on the South Side of Chicago and seeing an ailing father continue to work hard, and leave business matters at the office; while herself transitioning from the legal field to civic and community work after marrying Barack and having their two daughters, Malia and Sasha; and most recently while Barack was on the campaign trail.

Mrs. Obama even wrote a heartfelt essay on the topic of work/life balance last month on the popular BlogHer community of women bloggers.  Here’s how she spells out the plight for working women:

As we all know, our country is in the midst of a major economic crisis.  And we’re all feeling the effects.  …

And folks are feeling it at the workplace.  Because right now, thousands of women across the country don’t have family leave at their jobs.  And those who do can’t afford to take it because it’s not paid.  And 22 million working women don’t have a single paid sick day.

That’s just unacceptable.  Families shouldn’t be punished because someone gets sick or has an emergency.

This is from the employee perspective, but Obama’s cause has direct implications for small and midsize business leaders.  Morra Aarons-Mele, a graduate student specializing in women and leadership, framed this exceptionally well recently on The Huffington Post,

Why should we care about “work life” issues when our savings and retirement funds are literally halving by the day?  Because “work life,” as nondescript as it may sound, is the stuff that keeps American families afloat.  Work life refers to issues ranging from sick leave to health care to early education and child care.  It also encompasses flexibility and better work-life balance, which have strong effects on companies’ bottom lines and employee productivity.

So what would organizations’ employee engagement activities geared toward helping workers achieve a more harmonious balance look like – ideally – four or eight years from now?  Obama hinted at this during a plenary address she gave at our annual small business leadership conference two years ago, when she spoke about creating relationships between businesses and the community.

Community organizing didn’t just help Barack become President-Elect; it has also helped his wife use resources at her present employer, the University of Chicago (and later its Hospitals) to transcend both entities from simply a “name” in their neighborhood to a visible, tangible source of inspiration and assistance.

As we spelled out in our article summarizing her remarks at our event, Obama pointed to the creation of such initiatives as school “Principal-For-A-Day” and community fitness programs as ways to not only bring the University’s and Hospitals’ employees out in the open, but to better connect their passions to their work.

This model has been readily adopted, to great effect, by some of the firms we’ve since honored as Top Small Workplaces.  For instance, 2008 winner The Redwoods Group, an insurance provider for YMCAs and Jewish Community Organizations that’s based in North Carolina, requires its 100 employees to volunteer 40 hours of service annually to nonprofits.  A condition of their employment, the company argues this has contributed directly to their steady employee growth (27% over the last two years) – including the ability to recruit cost effectively – and industry-low turnover (less than 6% on average the last two years).

So one plausible – again, ideal – work/life balance scenario is the government serving an encouraging, perhaps advisory role in helping small business leaders adjust their employee engagement best practices so employees can focus their passions on helping their communities, while at the same time benefitting the organization through enhanced workplace team building and lower rates of absenteeism and presenteeism.

Do you concur?  Or do you see Obama’s work/life-related efforts playing out differently?

Cross posted at Winning Workplaces

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Three New Studies Link Employee Engagement to Achieving Key Workplace Metrics

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The Labor Day holiday implies adults in the workforce, but this day involves younger generations, too. Witness the millions of parents, and their kids, getting used to quickly changing schedules as the latter group goes back to school.

It’s fitting, then, that this post start off as a generational footnote to a post I wrote recently on a BlessingWhite survey of thousands of workers, and some of their managers, in the context of working women in Generation Y. Among other “pitiful” results, their survey found that employees in this generation are the least engaged among the three generations it measured.

In looking for the root cause of this disengagement, I went back to the long-held notion that people don’t quit companies, they quit people. Turns out that three other new studies prop up this perception further. What’s more, the root cause seems to be your boss, and even your boss’s boss.

As Personnel Today recently noted on its website, quoting the Institute for Employment Studies’ Human Capital Measurement,

organisations that have commitment from senior executives to monitoring employee engagement will reap rewards in improving staff morale, and therefore improving customer satisfaction.

So if a company’s leadership is on board with actively and frequently engaging employees, two important metrics – one inside and one outside – are positively affected.

A corollary to improving morale turned up in another study of over 2,000 organizations by human capital management consulting firm HR Solutions. According to this press release, they found that whether employees are engaged or disengaged by their supervisors makes a huge difference when it comes to whether and how they pitch suggestions to fix problems in an organization, as well as how much value they’re perceived to be adding in a group or team building setting.

“These scores underscore the importance of the immediate supervisor in engaging the workforce,” Murat Philippe, a principal consultant at HR Solutions, says in the release. “A supervisor’s chances of having productive … employees can hinge on whether the employees feel valued and empowered.”

So now we know (if we didn’t before) that buy-in and long-term commitment of both senior and middle management is needed to ensure productivity is at its highest. But what lessons can small businesses take from this?

One answer emerged from yet another survey. As BusinessWeek recently announced – they got the exclusive on this – a joint study of 1,000 public and private companies by IBM and the Human Capital Institute found that small companies, with one to 1,000 employees,

were 4% better than the total sample [which included firms with up to 50,000 employees] at collaboration and sharing knowledge, 6% better at promoting virtual working, and 4% better at identifying relevant skills.

I read these results as integral to (respectively) task completion speed and accuracy; increasing average employee tenure; and recruiting ability, including effectively promoting from within.

So if you’re the leader of a small firm and you want to improve any or all of the following…

  • attracting and retaining top talent,
  • productivity,
  • driven-down decision making, or
  • customer satisfaction

…then you really need to look closely at how both you and your managers are engaging the rest of your workforce.

Bonus: To help in this regard, this pdf provides a number of low-cost, high-impact employee engagement methods focused on learning. We created this list based on our experience helping small businesses and nonprofits improve their work environments. Enjoy!

About the Author: Mark Harbeke’s role is to ensure that content on Winning Workplaces’ website is up-to-date, accurate and engaging. He also writes and edits their monthly e-newsletter, Ideas, and provides graphic design and marketing support. His experience includes serving as editorial assistant for Meredith Corporation’s Midwest Living magazine title, publications editor for Visionation, Ltd., and proofreader for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Drake University. Winning Workplaces is a not-for-profit providing consulting, training and information to help small and midsize organizations create great workplaces. Too often, the information and resources needed to create a high-performance workplace are out of reach for all but the largest organizations. Winning Workplaces is changing that by offering employers affordable consulting, training and information.

(Cross-posted from Winning Workplaces Blog)

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