Why does reality still throw companies a curveball?

Losing ground every time a “life event” invades the working sphere. Considering every absence a crisis that is difficult to recover from. Watching the clock to decide whether a worker’s time belongs entirely to the company. These are all examples of 20th century practices. Practices that link to a reality that no longer exists. 

There’s not enough life in work

According to recent research from Harvard, 73% of US workers are also caregivers: they provide care in the private sphere. They are mothers, fathers, children, siblings and friends.

These people are responsible for caring for others on a daily basis. Sometimes it feels more intense, other times less so. Relationships – and life in all its forms – have entered the workplace. But we haven’t mapped them yet: we look at them through a world that no longer exists. It’s becoming increasingly evident that we’re adapting corporate regulations and behaviors to something that’s obsolete. Things aren’t changing either: absences are seen as crises, clocks are used to assess workers and life is seen as an “anomaly”.

The result? Extremely high costs – some are visible, some are hidden. 

The visible costs involve stress (between €300 – €500 billion per year worldwide), flat or declining productivity even as technology advances and a high turnover of staff when people leave due to being unable to “manage” their dual roles. The hidden costs related to the loss of talent and productivity are a result of companies pretending to ignore the life cycles of their people. Or maybe they actually ignore them?

Why do things need to change?

The willingness to ignore the cycles of life of the people of this millennium is the only possible explanation for the way in which our approach to work is not evolving, consequently absorbing the cost of voluntary ignorance. The Harvard research data is clear (and also familiar to us):

1) An increasing number of families are “different”. The number of married couples is decreasing, while the number of single parent families and mixed family groups, for example several generations living together, is increasing.

2) The participation of women in the workplace is becoming essential to the survival of the entire economic system, and “much of the highly educated female workforce in the United States at one point or another ‘opts out, ratchets back, or redefines work,’ due to caregiving responsibilities”.

3) In 2013, 47% of middle age Americans were in a so-called “sandwich” situation caught between the care of their children and that of their parents. Intense needs that are not only about care and financial support, but also about emotional support.

At the same time, the business world is battling over talent management. How can we attract the most talented people, and how can we retain them? But the people that focus on caring for people’s wellbeing are not always the same that focus on talent management. HR teams are beginning to understand that people’s lives are increasingly complex and multi-dimensional, their needs are not only practical but increasingly human. But at the same time, they are continuing to attract workers by valuing solely their professional lives, as if they’re living in a vacuum.

It’s time for work-life synergy to take over

Companies often invest in dozens of benefits that workers don’t even know about – and if they do, they’re unlikely to change their perception of their employees. At the same time, corporations continue to ignore their people’s real life dimensions. We’re talking about those unexpected absences, the caregiving load that’s treated as an alien concept and the project delays that are confused with poor motivation. All of these elements weigh heavily on career decisions and progress. Just like they did in the last century.

How long can a company adhere to a reality-map that no longer exists? According to Professors Fuller and Raman, co-leads of the project “Managing the future of work” at Harvard:

“The return for companies that learn how to take care and recognize the caregiving dimensions of their people, will go far beyond the hiring of employees. They will gain the potential to create an important source of competitive advantage”.

And it is not just about providing a series of useful services. Of course, that’s important, but it’s not enough. It is a matter of changing perceptions and culture. The life dimension must be openly integrated into the work cycle design. Planned and predictable life stages planned alongside career stages. Joined together, just like they have been in our lives for a very long time.

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here