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Brand Learning

Think About It: Create a culture of trust as first step in work/life balance

Creating a culture of respect and trust is likely the most challenging and most rewarding step to building programs that truly support work/life balance for employees. Learn how to make this work in this latest column from OIWC exclusively for SNEWS.

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“We technically have flextime, but nobody uses it. I tried once… I adjusted my work schedule to match my kids’ school schedule. But every day on my way out the door, my co-workers would give me a look that spoke volumes. I was seen as the slacker – they weren’t there when I came in at 7 a.m., but they saw me leave at 3pm every day. Even though I was getting my work done, it didn’t matter. The culture of our company didn’t support my flex schedule, so I stopped after a few weeks.”

Sound familiar? This is a real story, told by an OIWC member who was talking about how her company scores when it comes to work/life balance. Sadly, her story is not uncommon. According to OIWC’s 2008 Satisfaction Survey of women in the outdoor industries, 100 percent of the women surveyed said it’s important to them that their company cares that its employees maintain a sensible work/life balance, but only 53 percent of these women give their companies high grades in this area.

When research began for OIWC’s 2011 SNEWS® columns focused on work/life balance, one thing became painfully obvious: It doesn’t matter how many programs a company has in place if there isn’t first a culture that supports those programs. The story above is a perfect example: the program that allows for a flexible schedule was in place, but the culture of trust and respect that let employees feel comfortable taking advantage of it was not.

This first step – creating a culture of respect and trust – is likely the most challenging and most rewarding step to building programs that truly support work/life balance for employees. Challenging because it could potentially involve an entire overhaul of a company’s culture, but rewarding in that it sets the stage for employee loyalty, satisfaction, dedication, and retention for years to come.

Patagonia and the value of integrity

One company in our industry that has mastered this first step is Patagonia. At Patagonia, work/life balance is a philosophy, not just a program. The responsibility of work/life balance isn’t just delegated to the human resources department; it’s a part of the company’s four core values: quality, integrity, environmentalism, and not bound by convention. ‘Integrity’ applies to not only the products of Patagonia, but also the people: relationships are built on integrity and respect.

“When an employee walks into Patagonia, they don’t have to leave part of themselves outside the front door,” said Lu Setnicka, human resources director at Patagonia. “We respect them as a whole person: employee, spouse, parent, athlete, activist… whatever it may be.”

A Foundation of Trust

Managers at Patagonia are trained to operate on a foundation of trust. They respect that people have lives beyond work. And, after clearly communicating what is expected of employees, they trust employees to best know how to get their job done, provided their position is one that can support that level of flexibility.

So how does it work? The expectation is that employees will balance their work and their life, and will get their jobs done in the schedule that works best for them and accomplishes their responsibilities to the business. It’s up to each employee to create his or her own balance within the framework and culture that Patagonia has created.

Setnicka noted that this way of working is not appropriate for every position in a company. For example, in a retail environment, there is an expectation the staff will open and close the store at certain hours and be available during operating hours to service customers’ needs. Managers still trust their employees, but they may not have the same degree of flexibility as other managers managing other types of positions. 

When asked for examples of how employees take advantage of this culture of trust, Setnicka shared the story of Patagonia’s designers. “Sometimes, they get inspired, get an idea, and they don’t want to interrupt their momentum. They’ll keep working on a project late into the night, and then come into the office at noon the next day.”

But it’s not a free-for-all, said Setnicka. “True, surfers at Patagonia’s HQ in Ventura, Calif., are known to head for the beach when the surf comes up. But, if you’re on deadline for a project, you may not be able to take advantage of that swell because you have a responsibility to finish what you’re working on. Depending on the employee’s position, we expect they will prioritize and make these decisions on their own.”

Patagonia isn’t the only company to master this culture of trust. In The Seven Day Weekend, Ricardo Semler, CEO of a $160 million Brazilian company, shared his thoughts around why companies should put employee freedom and satisfaction ahead of corporate goals. “Smart bosses will eventually realize that you might be most productive if you work on Sunday afternoon, play golf on Monday morning, go to a movie on Tuesday afternoon, and watch your child play soccer on Thursday.” At his company, Semco, employees set their own hours; there are no offices, no job titles, no business plans; employees get to endorse or veto any new venture; kids are encouraged to run the halls; and the CEO lets other people make nearly all the decisions. Semco has virtually no staff turnover, and there are no signs that its growth will stop any time soon.

Creating a Culture of Trust

It can’t happen overnight, but it can happen. By putting energy into creating a culture of trust, your company will reap the rewards: low turnover with high employee satisfaction, loyalty and energy.

For example, this philosophy has paid off for Patagonia: employee turnover in Patagonia’s retail stores is approximately 28 percent; turnover in the U.S. retail industry overall is approximately 116%. 

So where to start? Setnicka gives this advice for companies wanting to create this culture:

  • Look at your company’s values (or, if your company doesn’t have any stated core values, set aside time to articulate them).
  • Develop programs that support and enhance your core values. This will be different for each company depending in the company’s overriding values.
  • Make sure everybody is on board with the values, the culture you want to create or support, and the programs that are in place.
  • Don’t just put the programs in place, but encourage employees to take advantage of them.

    Train your managers to follow your values.
  • Model the values at every level. It’s good for all employees to see the CEO going for a run at lunch. It’s her way of saying she respects the desire for work/life balance for herself as well as for employees.

Pollyanna Pixton, founder of the Institute for Collaborate Leadership and co-founder of Accelinova, sums it up when she said, “Teams deliver great results when they take ownership. After working with a team on setting goals and objectives, leaders must step back and let the team work. You can’t do this without trust—it is essential in engaging teams, retaining talent, fostering innovation, creating great working environments, and delivering results.” Create a culture of trust, build programs that show your employees you care about their work/life balance, then stand back and enjoy the rewards of your efforts.

Sally Grimes is the Executive Director of Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition, and believes the greatest asset in any organization is its employees. Stay tuned for monthly columns featuring companies big and small, with examples of how they successfully implemented Work/Life balance programs for their employees. If your company has a program you are proud of, email to be featured in an OIWC SNEWS column.