Beyond work–life balance at IBM
The swift pace of change certainly represents a challenge for contemporary managers. Technology is constantly evolving and competitive pressures are increasing in a highly globalised economy. Shifts in social values also render different demands from employees. Managers need to develop skills and corporation-wide programs to cope with changes and challenges. In particular, work-life balance and quality of work life issues have increasingly emerged as significant issues for employees in many organisations.
The giant computer company IBM has been a pioneer in dealing with work–life issues. IBM is built around a single, focused business model — innovation. The company invents and applies technology to help solve its clients’ problems. Over the years, IBM has moved from being a multinational company to a globally integrated enterprise. It takes a holistic work–life balance view to assist its employees to work more effectively. For example, IBM was the first major employer to establish a dependent care network for its employees way back in 1984. This initiative sees IBM help finance child care and elder care projects and facilities in the cities in which its employees work. Such services assist IBM’s employees in balancing their work and personal commitments.
IBM regularly conducts its Work/Life Issues Survey among its employees around the world, a practice that began in 1986. The survey monitors the effectiveness of existing work–life programs and provides a forum for employees to make suggestions for future programs. Its most recent survey collated feedback from more than 25 000 of its employees, covering 48 countries and 20 language groups. It was one of the largest work–life surveys ever completed by a corporate, government, or academic entity.
Recognising that how, when and where people want and need to work is continually changing, IBM has implemented ‘working at home’ and ‘teleworking’ practices, and has introduced a work–life integration program.
Interestingly, IBM employees from around the world recorded similar comments in the survey. For example, most employees were concerned about family issues such as the availability of babysitters and childcare, arrangements for holidays and the care of elderly parents. The survey provided evidence that the struggle to balance work and family commitments is largely a universal issue among IBM’s employees around the world. Many employees also expressed that work–life balance issues would be either their first or second reason for potentially leaving IBM in the future. Balancing their private lives with their professional responsibilities is a key employee need. On the other hand, IBM’s flexibility is nominated as a key reason in the survey as to why employees choose to remain at IBM.
According to IBM China/Hong Kong general manager Dominic Tong, the company has developed a supportive and flexible work environment that assists employees with integrating their work and personal commitments. Tong believes that in the past employees often complained that they had insufficient time for their families, communities and personal interests because of a continual heavy workload and undue pressure brought on by their work commitments. Companies on the other hand according to Tong, traditionally viewed work and an individual’s personal life as competing priorities in a zero-sum game, in which a gain in one area means a loss in the other.
Instead of viewing work–life as a set of tradeoffs, Tong explains that IBM has developed a new workplace model – from ‘work–life balance’ to ‘work–life integration’. The work–life integration program at IBM goes beyond the idea of work–life balance and incorporates quality of work life as well. Flexibility is the key to enhancing both, with IBM taking the view that enhancing both an employee’s work performance and their personal life are achievable, not incompatible, aims. The IBM work–life integration program is based on the philosophy that as flexibility increases, the difficulty in employees balancing their work and personal lives decreases.
IBM employees are allowed to influence their workloads and schedules. The company is also supportive of ‘working at home’ and ‘teleworking’ practices that address employees’ work and personal objectives. Today, more than 70 per cent of IBM managers supervise employees who work somewhere else. Nearly half of IBM’s 400 000 employees work in a location other than a traditional office and approximately 15 per cent work from home. IBM strongly supports a flexible workplace and recognises that how, when and where people want and need to work is rapidly and continually changing. The company believes that with the power to influence their own workday and work–life balance according to individual needs, its employees can be more effective in using their time. IBM also recognises that its global workforce and ‘24/7’ activity across the world’s time zones requires a flexible organisational commitment.
The goodwill between IBM and its employees improves productivity and morale and enhances job satisfaction. Performance is judged on employees getting work done in the best possible way — with a focus on business results, not on where and when people do their work. According to Tong, this philosophy also attracts applicants from Generation Y — who value independence and autonomy at work and who are the future for IBM. They may desire flexible working hours, a wide variety of welfare facilities, the freedom to work from home — or even from a different country — and greater respect for family life.
In the long run, enhancing the wellness and quality of all aspects of employees’ lives — work, home, community and the self — is the ultimate aim of IBM’s work–life integration program. Such integration can be regarded as successful in an organisation when an individual’s right to have a fulfilled life inside and outside of paid work is accepted and respected as the norm — to the mutual benefit of the individual, the business and society. Work–family researchers have had much success in encouraging both organisations and individuals to recognise the importance of achieving greater balance in life. In today’s business environment, the most talented employees expect to be able to take charge of integrated lives. To win ‘the war for talent’ organisations must recognise and accommodate this need. At IBM, work–life integration is continuously supported by a strong common corporate culture and an ongoing managerial commitment, as well as the company’s values, benefits and programs.75
1. describe the relationship between IBM and its employees in terms of a psychological contract.
2. identify possible work stressors and suggest feasible stress management strategies for IBM’s employees.
3. describe the benefits of IBM’s work–life integration program from both an employer and employee perspective? Explain how this management approach (i.e. work-life integration) is reflected in the Competing Values Framework?