Management expert says overworked employees are looking for perks and adjustments, and savvy managers are flexible

EVERYBODY has always wanted work-life balance, but it’s more important today because the workplace has become a more high-pressure environment in the last five years than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

“Everywhere I go, people tell me, ‘We’ve got to get more work and better work out of fewer people,’ ” said Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, author of the best-seller It’s Okay to Be The Boss, and one of the leading experts on leadership and management, and young people in the workplace.

Bruce Tulgan, RainmakerThinking

“Management wants more, better, faster. Look at the survivors of the Great Recession—they’re the ones who managed to implement new technologies, streamline operations, cut waste, and improve efficiency. The survivors are the ones who figured out how to squeeze everything.”

But there are only 168 hours in a week, and workers have been increasingly overburdened.

“They’ve got people at home they care about,” he said. “There are a lot of people who feel like they’re at their limit. Everybody is trying to get a break. Most leaders in management are scrambling. You hesitate to hire. Their approach is, ‘Let’s take these high performers who have been overburdened the past few years, and let’s squeeze them just a little bit more.’ ”

He said workers are increasingly looking for ways to deal with that and find a balance, and many are asking for perks or adjustments to their work schedule.

“And some leaders’ and managers’ response is, ‘This is an outrage. How dare you want something in return for your hard work?’ ” he said. “Some people will slink away. Others won’t take no for an answer. Others say, ‘I’m going to leave.’ Often this is one of your most valuable people, because they tend to have the most options. This is not an insult. This is how free markets work. It’s whatever you can negotiate. People are just trying to take care of their families.”

Tulgan said there are real business costs to a company if management is not flexible.

“Our research came up with a problem we call ‘pent-up departure demand’. These are high-performing individuals in your organization who have been wanting to leave because they’re under so much pressure. They’ve been looking for the opportunity, and when they can leave, they will.

“The flip side of that is it puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting high-quality talent. Some employers are learning to sell their flexibility to high-potential talent, and that puts you at a disadvantage at recruiting in a tightening labor market in the next few years.”

He said a big paycheck isn’t necessarily the answer, because other companies can offer that, and it’s very easy for employees to compare the two companies side by side. The secret is to create a special currency through non-financial rewards and incentives.

“Economists call it creating a ‘unique value proposition,’” Tulgan said, “and it’s a very powerful way to do business, because if the employee finds something he really wants, it is by definition more valuable to him than its overall cost in the market. So over time, if you can figure out how to leverage individuals’ needs, then you put yourself in a position to create a ‘unique value proposition,’ and that gives you powerful incentive to drive performance and retain high performers.”

Tulgan said it doesn’t really matter where and when people work, as long as they’re getting their work done.

If a worker is requesting Thursdays off, a successful manager won’t make a long-term-fix deal. He’ll say, “Let’s take it one Thursday at a time. Here’s what I need from you by Wednesday at midnight. And then, if you deliver, Thursday is all yours.”

“According to our research, the managers who are successful are ones who learned to trade flexibility for accountability every step of the way.

He said there are three keys to making flexibility work in the real world:

Control. “You have to put people in control. That means you put their hand on the lever and they need to be able to pull that lever. That means, ‘You tell me what you want.’ ”

Time. “It’s critical because one of the biggest mistakes leaders make when it comes to work-life balance is making people long-term fixed rewards.”

Customization. “Everybody wants different things. There are five non-financial rewards people really care about: more control over their own schedule; location; the choice projects and great assignments; relationships at work; and learning opportunities.” ♦

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