Gone are the days when splitting “breadwinner” and “homemaker” roles was the norm. Today, in seven out of ten families with children, both parents are employed. Since 1965, women have nearly tripled the time they spend on paid employment, and men have doubled their hours tackling chores or childcare — both, in other words, are doing more.

All that effort exacts a steep price: Many adults find it difficult to keep up with work and family responsibilities. And yet decades worth of data show that a saner work-life balance — whether achieved via more flexible hours, facilities such as lactation rooms, or job-sharing arrangements — can benefit employees and employers alike.

Companies that institute flextime policies, for example, find that employees are more satisfied, less likely to quit and better at raking in profits for the business. Flexible work hours may also attract more talent, reduce absenteeism and help people do their work more effectively overall.

These changes can add up to big business savings. One bank, for example, trained managers at certain branches to be more accommodating of people’s personal lives and found that employees stayed with these branches longer — and so did customers. Over two years, that loyalty added up to an extra $106 million in profits.

But workplaces have been slow to embrace these ideas — why so? One big reason is the link between work and social status, says legal scholar Joan Williams at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Writing in the Annual Review of Psychology, she and her colleagues note that for many high-level, highly paid jobs, putting in long hours is considered a show of strength, and constant availability a sign of dedication.

Now director of the university’s Center for WorkLife Law, Williams recalls finding the work-life juggle so tough at times that she was tempted to quit her job after having children. Knowable Magazine spoke with Williams about why the struggle persists. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What policies are most needed to improve work-life balance?

One is to address extremely long hours, which make it so that the only person who can hold a high-level job is the breadwinner, supported by a flow of family caregivers. The solution there is to make more realistic work hours.

The second concerns the rigidity of when and where you work. Japan, for example, has an unrelenting face time culture, so that precludes things like flextime to accommodate, for example, a well-baby visit. The solution there is to make the workplace less rigid, so that employees have more control on both when and where they can work.

The truly important policy is to redefine what constitutes full-time work. We need to redefine the ideal worker in a way that’s consistent with people’s values for their families, including being present for family responsibilities such as childcare and eldercare.

Why is it difficult to implement policies that improve work-life balance?

For a long time we’ve been talking to employers about the business case for workplace flexibility. But the problem to overcome is not about money, it’s about identity.

Graphic shows how flexibility policies affect retention. Among both hourly and salaried workers and men and women, having greater flexibility at work made them more likely to plan on staying in their job over the next three years, according to survey results. This was especially true for salaried employees of both genders.
Whether salaried or paid by the hour, employees who have flexibility in their jobs choose to stay with their employers longer. An analysis of survey data gathered from more than 100,000 employees at 40 U.S organizations found that when employers offered some flexibility on when and where employees worked, workers were less likely to leave over a three-year timespan. Flexibility was especially important for women.

The way we’ve defined the ideal worker means that people who have been successful have sacrificed the other areas of their life in order to achieve workplace success. These people, now managers, have a tremendous amount personally invested in their belief that the only way to be a successful professional is to be an always-on worker who outsources daily childcare and much of the emotional work involved with raising children.

To come in and say to them, “You can organize this work differently” is very threatening. Because then — why did they themselves give up all that? It feels like being told you’ve been a bad parent. That’s a painful thing to admit.

Are there other social or cultural obstacles to change?

People think long hours are about making money. But they’re not. Time norms have always been a way of signifying elite status. In the US, it used to be that the less you worked, the more elite you were, encapsulated in the term “bankers’ hours” — bankers only worked 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Now it’s the more you work, the more elite you are. “I’m slammed” is a polite way of saying “I’m important.”

Are companies starting to realize the importance of work-life balance for professional employees?

I know there has been an arms race over parental leave in Silicon Valley, for example, such that companies are offering better and better parental leave policies. That’s commendable and important. On the other hand, it doesn’t take three or ten months to raise a child, it takes 20 years. I haven’t heard about Silicon Valley firms embracing flexible work policies like job shares, telecommuting, non-marginalized part-time schedules or flextime. Those are quite different from paid leave.

Graphic shows one bank’s experience with increasing flextime policies. Greater flexibility led to greater employee retention and that led to greater customer loyalty and increased profits.
Flexibility boosts the bottom line: First Tennessee Bank knew from internal surveys that bank branches with the highest rates of employee retention were also the most profitable. So it conducted a trial to try to boost retention rates. When it trained managers in flextime practices, employees chose to stay with the bank longer — and so did customers. That loyalty added up to big bucks: Over three years, the bank’s earnings per share rose from 70 cents to $1.10, generating an extra $106 million in profits. The focus on flexibility and employee retention is now part of the entire company’s practices.

You started out studying executives, but later you focused your research on the schedules of hourly paid retail employees. What motivated the change?

I’ve stopped working with companies on work-life issues for professionals because I saw so little progress, unfortunately. But though we didn’t see the potential for real improvement for professionals, we did see that potential around issues that commonly arise for hourly paid workers in retail.

In their case, they usually don’t have too little flexibility — they have too much. They typically have “just-in-time” schedules: working different times every day and different days every week, usually with three days’ notice of their schedule. And given that low-income families in the US often rely on networks of family and friends for childcare, it means they’re relying on people who might also have these just-in-time schedules.

This leads to a pattern of serial quitting because they can’t plan ahead. In some industries with these schedules, such as hospitality or retail, documented turnover rates have been between 100 and 500 percent a year.

And it’s not in employers’ interests. A decade of studies has shown that this lean scheduling — keeping stores very short on work hours for employees — decreases sales.

You tested a stable scheduling system at the Gap where, among other things, stores eliminated tentative, on-call shifts and gave workers two weeks’ advance notice of work hours. How did these changes help the retailer?

This is the first study to show that a shift to stable scheduling can increase sales by 7 percent, which is a lot in retail. You typically have to launch a major marketing campaign to see that kind of increase. And this was a very high return on investment. Gap spent around $31,200 out of pocket to increase employees’ hours, and increased sales by about $2.9 million in these 19 intervention stores.

What were the reasons for that increase?

Because there’s such constant turnover of employees in retail, a lot of associates don’t know what the product is, or where it is. Many of us have walked out of retail stores because we couldn’t find a size, or the line was too long at the cashier.

In the intervention stores, we saw a decrease in turnover among more experienced associates. So customers would walk in and it’d be easier to find somebody to help, the person would be more likely to help with the product and be more skilled at actually helping.

Survey results show that employees who report having flexibility at work are more likely to also say that they are more engaged with work (scores ranging from 8.47-8.91 on a 14-point scale for hourly and salaried men and women) and experience less stress (2.05 to 3.41 on a 14-point scale). Those who say they do not have enough flexibility reported scores ranging from 5.43-6.81 on engagement and 4.11-5.89 on stress levels, with salaried men and women reporting slightly higher stress than hourly workers.
In a 2011 study, survey data from 40 medium and large U.S organizations showed that employees who have flexibility in the workplace report feeling less stress and burnout than those who struggle to balance work and home responsibilities. Workers, both salaried and hourly, who report greater flexibility also feel more engaged with their jobs.

Were you surprised that these apparently small things would matter so much?

I was kind of stunned by the results. It’s not intuitive. But once you’re in the stores, it makes perfect sense.

Did you find any common ground between the problems faced by hourly paid retail workers and those of high-earning professionals?

In some ways, the commonality is the definition of the ideal worker as someone who’s always available to the employer. Both of these — the voracious schedules of professionals and the extraordinarily unstable schedules in retail — are justified on the grounds of business necessity. But that’s not really the case.

What do employers need to do to solve these problems?

In the low-wage context, we need to communicate to the key industries affected by just-in-time schedules — namely retail, hospitality and health care — that they’re leaving money on the table. What employers using these schedules don’t understand is that because they’re so focused on controlling labor costs, they’re not making as much money as they could. They are artificially reducing sales and labor productivity. A slight increase in labor costs may well pay for itself through increased sales and more sales per hour.

In the elite context, it’s a very different proposition. There has to be some way to start a conversation about new ways of working that doesn’t trigger this identity-threat reaction of “What do you mean there are new ways of working? Are you saying I was a bad father?”

Are there things that employees can do as well?

It depends on the situation. For example, when the kids get old enough, you might say to them, “What are the three things between now and January that you really need me to be at, and I will move mountains to make sure I’m there.” Another thing is to identify when face time is important at their job and when it isn’t, so they don’t have to always be present, but be there when it matters.

According to a recent Pew survey, fathers now contribute more to household chores and childcare than they did in the past. Has this eased the burden of work-life balance that rests on women?

Women still do about twice as much as men in terms of household work and childcare. What has changed is that an increasing number of younger men (we have no idea what proportion it is) feel that being a good father means being involved in the daily care of children rather than just someone who shows up to the school play. That is really the most important source for change.

We’ve told employers for 30 years that voracious work schedules in elite jobs were driving talented women away, and they didn’t care much. But once those schedules began to drive away talented men as well, we found ourselves in a different conversation.

Have you seen any signs of change as a result of this?

Although mainstream institutions have been notably unresponsive, many entrepreneurs have founded new companies that build work-life balance into the business model.

In the legal profession, I found close to 60 organizations that have reinvented the business model in ways that bake work-life balance into the model. They gave two different flexible schedules: one was a short, 10- to 20-hours-per-week schedule, and the other was 40 to 50 hours a week, but you could work out of the home and dependably take vacations and eat dinner with your family.

The first model was adopted chiefly by women who saw themselves as stay-at-home moms, but the second was evenly distributed between both men and women.

One of the upsides of the romance with entrepreneurship is that people are using it to reinvent business models in ways that prioritize making money rather than simply enacting virtue or manliness or elite status.