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Katherine Reynolds Lewis

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Changing a Workaholic Culture: Sloan Awards Announced

Posted: 11/09/11 03:25 PM ET

When Kristi Bryant walked into the office of Ryan LLP's CEO in May 2007, she was determined to resign from the Dallas-based tax firm. She'd decided the long hours and intense work pressure weren't compatible with the family she hoped to raise. Still, it was "nerve-wracking" to face the chief executive with the news, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.

"I knew it wasn't going to be easy to stand by my resignation," Bryant said. "At that point I was headstrong; there wasn't going to be anything to change my mind."

As she talked with CEO G. Brint Ryan about her decision to quit, she became convinced that he was serious about changing the direction of the firm and its approach to work-life balance. When he asked her to join the work-life committee and help to create more family-friendly policies, she agreed -- mentally giving it six months before she decided whether to reconsider moving on.

Now, four years later, Ryan is among the winners of the Sloan Award for flexible workplaces, announced today by the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management. The FWI-SHRM report on the winners is a compendium of best practices and innovative ideas -- and a rebuttal to any manager who's ever said: "We can't do that here." (I've covered the other winners in more detail for Fortune and also blogged about the awards for About.com.)

Today, Bryant is still happily working for Ryan, although she's currently on maternity leave with her second baby. She reports that Ryan is no longer a grueling employer, where people wore long hours as a badge of honor and regularly worked weekends in hopes of advancing their careers simply by showing their faces.

"People work the same amount of hours we were working before, but we're getting much more done," she says. "There aren't people there on the weekends. People have gotten a comfort level that face time is not what's necessary. You work at home for a couple hours on the weekend if you need to, and then spend time with your family and come in Monday happy."

I experienced a smaller-scale change in culture when I negotiated a reduced-hour schedule at Newhouse News Service and agreed with my bureau chief that I'd be leaving promptly at 5 p.m. to pick up my newborn daughter from daycare -- barring any breaking news emergencies. Within a few months of implementing my new schedule, I noticed that other people were leaving at 5 p.m. with me. And pretty soon, my colleagues were taking their gym bags out with them for lunch, without guilt or shame. It wasn't exactly a Sloan-approved workplace, but it was kinder, friendlier place that was more focused on results and less on hours behind the desk.

I'm not saying I was as much a catalyst as Kristi Bryant was. After all, she provided the spark that encouraged Ryan to change its entire model of evaluating, rewarding and promoting employees. Flexibility paid off for the firm, with a dramatic drop in voluntary turnover and record profits for both 2009 and 2010, despite the recession.

But both examples demonstrate that until one person has the courage to stand up and say, "No more," there's no impetus for an employer to change its workaholic culture. In Ryan's case, according to my interview with chief organizational development officer Delta Emerson, workplace flexibility had been batted around for a year-plus, but Kristi Bryant's resignation letter was the "tipping point" that prompted the company to move forward.

I'd love to hear from readers about your own experiences with workplace flexibility. Were you witness to a tipping point such as Kristi Bryant? Or are you still slaving away in a competition to see who can log the most late nights and weekend duty? Please share your thoughts in the comments section or publish your own story about life at your employer, past or present.

 

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