Understanding the benefits of balance

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Book Review:
Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, by Anne-Marie Slaughter (Penguin Random House)


The belief that those who work most, work best may seem outdated in the feel-good speak of today’s corporate cultures. Yet it’s hard to deny that the vast majority of workplaces still live by it. Teleworking, flex hours, part-time positions, job shares and time off are, for the most part, simply tolerated. Many companies tout the importance of work-life balance; few enable it.

In her recently released book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter cites this dilemma as a key inhibitor to following successful career paths—or even just earning a decent living—for people who are also caregivers. And she’s not just talking about women; the conflict is felt by both women and men caring for children or relatives in need who also want to pursue their careers; by single parents who must be both breadwinner and caregiver; and by same-sex couples that have to fit themselves into stereotypically male and female roles to both support and nurture a family. Slaughter writes from a place of experience: in 2009 she became the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, and within two years returned to a less-demanding role in academia to spend more time with her family.

Redefining work norms

While her book covers a number of factors—economical, psychological, societal—that contribute to today’s work/life imbalance, she’s clearly looking to rattle the old guard that sets workplace policy and dictates corporate culture. Yes, most of these people are male, and yes, most caregivers today are female, but the book goes beyond the classic themes of women’s struggles in a man’s world to detail how accommodating caregivers is good for business. She nudges those “businesses that just don’t get it when it comes to the benefits of allowing employees to fit together work and family,” citing research that demonstrates the positive impact that flexibility has on a company’s recruitment, retention, productivity, creativity and employee morale.

Slaughter questions why a worker who arrives at the office first and leaves last, or answers email at 1 a.m., is perceived as more productive than one who puts in six effective hours of work and then heads home, or logs off, to care for her family. Or why a woman who has taken a leave to have children is considered to lack ambition, and pays the consequences for that choice when she tries to pick her career back up. These practices reward people who at least appear to put their job above all else.

She points to a flexible-work movement called OpenWork that extols allowing employees to shape their own working environment together with their supervisors. According to the book, 97 percent of companies that embrace this model see increased productivity, 88 percent of employees at these companies report greater job satisfaction, and 45 percent have reduced rates of stress and burnout. Slaughter also dedicates pages to anecdotes of employees becoming more productive, engaged and happy with flexible arrangements, and often surprising their superiors with how well the arrangement also works for the company.

She calls for a remodel of workplaces “so that our employers no longer assume that a lawyer or businessperson can be available 24/7 to answer email or that a restaurant worker or clerk can be available 24/7 to staff a shift,” writes Slaughter, who is currently the president and CEO of New America Foundation. “This kind of change goes far beyond feminism.”

Major takeaways by role:

Corporate culture starts at the top. If you implement flexible policies, model this behavior yourself. Invite employees to suggest ways to make work more enjoyable and decrease stress.


Make the case for a flexible workplace
by citing business benefits. Partner with employees to come up with new, non-standard work policies, and advocate for them.


Flexibility can help maximize human talent and expertise.
Investigate replacing established policies with a blank slate and let your employees contribute ideas.


Flexibility drives creativity.
People need downtime to get creative juices flowing. Ask where, when and how your staff finds inspiration for their work, and give freedom to take “creative breaks.”

Senior Writer

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