I was invited by the U.S. State Department to make a number of presentations on work-life in Slovakia, Austria, and Slovenia last week, highlighting approaches in the U.S., sharing organizational best practices, and individual strategies for work-life integration. The timing was perfect for a number of reasons: it was an innovative way to celebrate National Work and Family Month and the trip came on the heels of the Center for Work & Family's annual meeting of its Global Workforce Roundtable.
On this recent trip, I had the opportunity to meet with business leaders through the American Chamber of Commerce (in Slovakia and Slovenia), members of NGOs such as the Pontis Foundation, Business Leaders Forum and Ekvilib, and entrepreneurs and young professionals.
Though I was invited to share information with these diverse audiences, there were numerous opportunities to learn. Three important lessons struck me as I returned to the United States:
1. Integrating professional and personal responsibilities is a challenge all over the world. Everywhere I spoke, individuals were concerned with their ability to have meaningful, engaging, and successful careers AND enjoy time with their families, contribute to their communities, and lead healthy and happy lives. There is always a passion as well as an anxiety when the topic of work-life integration is raised as it brings together individual, family, organizational, and national values. Globalization, pervasive technology, and unstable economies are trends that impact the way we work and as a result also impact the way we live. This increasing complexity truly makes work-life integration a universal challenge for individuals all over the world and means that organizations should re-double their efforts during these challenging times.
2. Work-life is part of an organization's corporate social responsibility. Though in the United States, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is very much integrated into the mission of progressive organizations, the focus of CSR strategies tends toward external markets, communities, and the environment. In Europe, work-life is more strongly integrated with CSR strategies as a holistic organizational strategy around sustainability, similar to the ideas shared in this recent blog post. Creating an environment where employees are respected and are able to lead successful professional and personal lives is a recognized part of the organization's responsibility. The connection between work-life and CSR is an area where U.S. companies have an opportunity to find greater synergies.
3. Greater work-life integration is achieved through partnership between the individual, NGOs sector, industry, and the national government. Work-life, by definition, is the integration of many domains involving the individual, the family, the organization, the community, and state and national legislation. In the U.S., the government has remained relatively absent from this area and organizations have stepped in to fill this gap, as they recognize that creating a positive work-life culture has numerous business advantages. In countries such as Slovakia and Slovenia, where the governments have played a more active role in supporting parental leave for mothers and fathers, establishing standards for working hours, and providing opportunities for educational advancement, healthcare, and elder care support, a broader portion of the population has access to resources which help them achieve the quality of life they seek. With exceptionally long histories, robust infrastructures, and excellent education systems, the young governments and markets in Slovenia and Slovakia are paving a new way forward. The partnership between government, industry, NGO, and the individual may provide for the most sustainable opportunity for work-life integration for employees and citizens.
These are three of the lessons that I more fully appreciated after traveling to eastern Europe and echo some of the key takeaways from our Global Workforce Roundtable meeting: cultural identity, national legislation, and economic security strongly influence the need and approach to work-life integration as well as who can and should take the responsibility for ensuring high quality of life. In the United States, we should applaud those companies which are taking steps to provide supportive work environments (see our National Workforce Roundtable Member companies), and recognize that when we discuss work-life organizational supports in a global context, business is only one of the critical actors in supporting a positive work-life environment.