09/23/2011 05:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2011

Initiating Tough Work-Life Conversations?

Occasionally I hear someone opine that work-life is "soft." I've never understood what that means since there is no other people strategy that has generated more hard data to support its contribution to business success. It doesn't match reality on the front lines of practice either. If you want to see a grown man quiver, challenge a new father to defy convention and ask his boss for the weeks of family leave for which the policy manual specifies he is entitled. The fact is that taking control of your own life at work takes courage -- the courage to stand up and push back in defense of your own values in the face of intense pressure to behave otherwise. A number of tough conversations stand between you and work-life effectiveness. This is not an endeavor for the faint of heart; there is nothing "soft" about it.

Why is striking a tenable balance between the demands of work and personal life so tough? Because there persists a deep-rooted socio-cultural norm that defines the "ideal worker" as someone who can be controlled, who doesn't challenge the status quo and has few entangling commitments that distract from a lopsided focus on work. Work-life strategy contradicts this tidy, 18th century world view -- messes it up completely. This tension defines the contemporary tug of war that all of us have experienced, sometimes in the same organization. It is not unheard of to walk into one department or work unit in a company where work-life philosophy reigns, then traverse another where everyone "knows better" than to ask for something as trivial as a personal accommodation that is not appropriate for the organization to respond to.

Why is it so important for you to make sure that the really tough conversations take place? Because you want to work in a highly effective workplace with a strong bottom line. The most direct way to support this goal is to make sure that everyone who works within your sphere of influence gets what they need to be successful both at work and at home, including yourself. This is not a trivial pursuit but more important to business and personal success than ever before. Fortunately, there is abundant empirical evidence today for the bottom line impact of a well-implemented work-life strategy.

For the most current data, resources and case studies on this topic visit National Work and Family Month and join the conversation on Facebook.

So how do you go about seeding a work-life conversation? Where do you start and with whom?
First of all don't proceed alone. Start small, safe and arm yourself with business value, precisely as you would do if you were recommending the purchase of a piece of software or any other capital investment.

Have a work-life platform to talk about. Consider inviting a colleague or two (or your work team, if appropriate) to engage with you in conducting a simple inventory of your company's own work-life offerings. If your first reaction is that you don't know what these might be, a Work-Life Audit checklist may help. When you have completed this easy task, you will have a preliminary outline of your employer's strengths and weaknesses across the seven categories of the Work-Life Portfolio.

Use proof points as conversation starters
. Take a look at the "proof points" described in the "Categories of Work-Life" brochure that match your work-life programs. These contain data from other companies that quantify the contribution of an investment in specific work-life programs to desired business outcomes (recruitment, retention, engagement, productivity, better health care outcomes, etc.). Then ask how your organization is quantifying its own investment and return. If this most basic of business inquiries encounters a blank stare, you and your team have a number of useful conversation openers, based on the simple analysis you have conducted that suggests what other companies have found useful and productive.

Make yourself heard through affinity groups. Consider forming (or leading) an employee resource group that corresponds to the major work-life issue that resonates with you personally, or that your company is either heavily invested in or lacking. This will continue to assure that you are not working alone, and that a specific constituency is informing leadership about a work-life issue for which it possesses the requisite expertise (i.e., a parent advisory group is best equipped to appropriately define both the need for childcare as well as the best locally available resources, a telework resource group of remote workers can best provide information and support to others).

Find out what your direct competitors are doing. This is important to know sooner or later because there is a great deal of competitive advantage to be gained on the work-life front. If it looks like your organization is a laggard in a rapidly mobilizing field, congratulations! You have one of the most valuable commodities available today -- a burning platform from which to fan the flames of change.

Apply for a best workplace award. Ask any company that has competed (win or lose) for any of the "best of" lists. Whoever tackles this task, I promise that a number of tough conversations and a great deal of learning will take place that just might lead to enough change to ensure that your organization is one of the survivors in an increasingly uncertain and turbulent world. When initiating work-life conversations, expect to encounter both support and resistance -- a very positive development. Support is much needed, of course, but resistance is equally important, because the tension between the two will define the exact contours of your playing field. The norm of the ideal worker isn't going down without a fight, but if all of us are combating it on multiple fronts simultaneously, the tipping point cannot be far off.