In this episode, we are joined by Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, Professor of Management at Université du Québec at Montréal. Her research focuses on individuals’ work and life identities in light of technological changes, and of diverse organizational and national contexts. In this conversation, we talk about the different aspects and impact of work-life balance policies, and the key elements necessary for employees to actually benefit from work-life balance arrangements. To know more about the work of Professor Ollier-Malaterre visit her ResearchGate profile, or follow her on Twitter.

What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Professor Ollier-Malaterre - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight!

Agnes Uhereczky: May I ask you Ariane to tell listeners a little bit about yourself, your passion and how did you get into this line of research which focuses on work and non-work domains?

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre: I’ve worked for about 10 years before getting a PhD. I’ve worked for one of the large US consulting firms, as a junior up to a manager; I also had my own start up in the years 2000s, and I worked for a University (Grande Ecole in France) as a project leader. So different settings for about 10-11 years.

And two things struck me, all these years. First, the workplace was operating as if people didn’t have lives outside of work and, second, women were dropping out of the up or out systems and out of high potential tracks. What was central in most workplaces that I got to observe was the necessities of the job and the clients, which is understandable but could have been achieved without ignoring and damaging employees’ personal and family lives.

So for my PhD, I chose to focus on how employers were handling the annoying fact that employees were not robots, but had lives, commitments, aspirations outside of work. I wanted to examine what policies employers were adopting and if these actually worked well. At that time, I had not gathered that the two phenomena I was observing were related, but that’s what I gradually came to understand as I was reading for my PhD and conducting my research. The research helped me understand what I had seen, the career trajectories of my peers, and to the dynamics of my own life.

As an aside, if PhD students or candidates are listening, my advice would be for them is work on something you care for, something you have a personal need to understand!

Agnes Uhereczky: As research advances in the field, a lot more nuance starts to emerge about the different aspects and impact of work-life balance policies. We now know that it can affect women differently than men, and also have different impacts on people's job satisfaction, career and work-life conflict. How did we get here, is it a question of more evidence or more mature research?

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre: Well I think it’s a matter of 2 factors primarily. Globalization and technology are the first ones because research has become more interdisciplinary and global due to the development of information technologies and global conferences, so now the access to research from other disciplines or countries is easier, and access to the scholars themselves is easier, there’s more cross-fertilization.

Secondly, research accumulation and the increase of field policies available to study: we as a field have been able to dig deeper and deeper, beyond the first assumptions. A couple of decades ago, I believe the priority was to promote adoption of the policies by employers and the hope was that it would be enough. Then there was a moment where many people, scholars and advocates, were discouraged because the literature reviews, the meta-analysis, they showed mixed results. For instance, in my PhD dissertation where I interviewed over 100 people in the US, UK and France, I found some very positive outcomes of work-life policies (loyalty or pride), but I also found negative outcomes (anger and resentment when could not access or issues of fairness; some stayed with the company because of the policies but wish they could go elsewhere) and then for other employees, the policies just didn’t do anything. Since then, careful research on the implementation gaps has pointed out 2 very fundamental reasons why just adopting work-life policies isn’t a guarantee of moving work-life balance forward:

The core obstacle to a healthy work-life interface is the issue of the workload and how work is organized. You can have an onsite childcare centre, a gym and a clinic, but if the expected workload is 60+ hours a week, it’s not going to help much. You can have flexible hours and telework, but if your managers emails you at 8pm with an urgent client deadline for the following day 7am, all the flex and control in the world is not going to enable you to read to your kids, call your dad, or get enough sleep. You know that I’m also researching the impact of technology on work and family and it’s increasingly challenging for people to create and maintain boundaries between work and life (plug: review in ARS with N. Rothbard and J. Jacobs). The importance of the workload is quite obvious, but for employers, it’s easier to provide additional services and policies than it is to examine work processes, prioritize tasks, and change the culture so that managers come up with reasonable and sustainable workloads. One example of the importance of the workload is a research Ellen Kossek and I just published on how managers reduce the load when a professional or a manager goes on a reduced load schedule. What we have found is that some managers just reshuffle the workload, and others succeed in reducing the load. It takes a collaborative effort between the employee and the manager, as well as support from the organisation, to actually reduce load instead of just reshuffling tasks.

The second very important dynamic that has been uncovered thanks to interdisciplinary research is the fact that little can be improved if we focus only on the workplace: workplaces are embedded in societies and employees have roles in their families. So actually, achieving sustainable work-life balance requires not only policies and cultural change in the workplace but also change in families and societies. As long as we will devalue care (care for children, care for elders, care for the disabled adults), domestic work and community involvement, and as long as we will overvalue work and careers, inequalities between men and women will persist because men will not embrace care. If men don’t embrace care, women remain the primary caretakers and therefore, they are held back in workplaces. It’s a systemic issue. Research points out that we’ve been operating on an illusion of gender equality and that’s very damaging to changing home and workplace dynamics.

Agnes Uhereczky: As advocates for work-life balance policies at workplaces, we tend to focus on the benefits and the business case. Research, however, tells us that not everybody benefits from these policies. Are there bad policies or only unfavourable conditions for these policies to take effect?

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre: It’s not that there are bad policies, it’s that’s there are not enough of the good policies, so let me focus now on what I believe employers should get busy to implement:

First, programs to evaluate and redesign work processes and workloads – as follows from what I’ve said before, this should be the core of any work-life, health, well-being, resilience, or sustainability program. I’d like to share a saying from a pharmaceutical company where I did a lot of fieldwork; they said, employees are like fish in a pond, you can enrol the fish in a stress management training but if you put them back in a toxic pond, they’ll still burn out. So they had team resilience workshops where they brought teams together and the teams identified where the stress and the hurdles came from and they worked together to find solutions and they had follow-ups on what they had decided to change, with dates and people responsible for each action. So in my view, the policies need to be way bolder, they need to address how we can reinvent work and the distribution and scheduling of tasks and responsibilities. Another example is the research of Susan Lambert who showed that for low-income workers, the main hurdle was large variations and unpredictability of their work schedules. So she worked with employers to so that the computer-based schedules were changed to account for the fact that workers have a life and other commitments and that both the business and the workers could benefit from a little more stability and predictability in schedules. These do not have to be huge programmes but have to be paying attention to workload, scheduling people and how teams can come up collectively with solutions.

The other set of policies that I wish we’d see more pertain to supporting managers in implementing work-life/family policies. It’s not enough to issue the policies and let managers struggle with them, because managers are already overworked and their knowledge of the policies is quite poor unless they invest time and effort to understand them. It’s not even enough to train managers; what they need, usually, is support as they deal with an employee’s request. It can be a work-life champion in the HR department, it can be helpdesk that managers can call or email with specific questions regarding what the employees’ rights are, how many days is it recommended that someone in a specific type of job teleworks, or how job shares work, how they should appraise these employees’ performance, what they should do so that these people’s careers are not hurt, and so forth. Managers need help, and if they have someone who walks them through what they should do so that people’s careers are not hurt that is going to help.

Agnes Uhereczky: There is a lot of literature on the impact of the lack of work-life balance (absenteeism, burnout, turnover, mental health issues), but difficult to pin down in a quantitative, convincing way the benefits. Have you come across evidence or methods that can help advocates substantiate the business case?

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre: I’d say research based on interventions have been very convincing. The work of Leslie Hammer and Ellen Kossek, for example, where they go to workplaces to measure a range of work climate and health factors, then they train managers on how to be family-supportive, and then they measure the same factors after the intervention. They did that with control groups and they also have resources such as videos where they explain what they did and how a manager can develop family-supportive supervisory behaviours. So, again, these are not huge and new fed policies, it's in the details always such as paying attention to the workload, scheduling, every-day interactions, but this does get huge results.

Agnes Uhereczky: According to you, what are the key elements or ingredients necessary for employees to benefit from work-life balance policies?

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre: So I’ve mentioned that work-life balance is a systemic issue so that employees will benefit more from work-life policies when there is gender equality in families (aka men embrace care). When this happens, both men and women will be able to use work-life policies without being penalized for it. We have a recent paper in Academic Management Review with Sarah Bourdeau and Nathalie Houlfort, which explains when and why users of work-life policies may get penalized; when employees use policies that signal that they have commitments outside of work (they take a leave, work part-time, they request flexible work hours), managers may interpret that use as a signal of lesser work devotion. And that’s where their careers suffer, especially if they are women, parents, and if their manager has very high work expectations.

So to benefit from work-life policies, employees need a culture that values life outside of work. That shows in several ways:

  • Public provisions that function as a floor of rights for employees (for example, legal regulations for parental or maternity leave, the right to request flexible hours as they have in the UK and Australia when you care for children or elders etc.); a few years back I wrote a piece where I pleaded for people in North America to consider not just the business case, but also what I termed the citizen case argument. Provide citizens with basic rights such as paid and secure maternity and paternity leaves, or the right to request flexible work hours when one cares for children, elders or disabled adults. There are several European provisions that do that and foster healthier work-life interfaces.
  • A society that questions the work devotion schema (Mary Blair-Loy, Joan Williams, Jennifer Berdahl and colleagues); in the US it stems from the protestant puritan heritage, in other countries it has other religious roots, but the results are often that people feel it’s a duty to work hard all the time and they feel little sense of entitlement for support (Suzan Lewis) as they juggle work and life.

Agnes Uhereczky: If I could ask you to give one piece of advice to a senior manager, based on what we discussed here and your knowledge and insight, what would that be?

Ariane Ollier-Malaterre: Please forget everything you know about “human resources” management. You are not managing human resources. You are managing people, and these people have lives. Men and women come to work in the morning with emotions, they leave in the evening with things they need to do for their loved ones or themselves, they have career dreams but also other dreams and respecting these dreams is the decent humane thing to do.