Should work and life always be at loggerheads? Not at all, reply Stewart D. Friedman, Perry Christensen and Jessica DeGroot

The modern corporation makes ever-increasing demands on its employees, some of whom virtually "live at work." Though people will always have children and elderly parents to care for, hobbies and community activities to pursue, many executives deal with employees’ personal-life issues summarily: "What you do in the office is our business. What you do outside is your own." For such managers, work versus personal life is a zero-sum game.

Enter the new stealth fighters: a small but growing cadre of "life friendly" managers. Rather than being bound by workaday routines, they take risks, flying under the radar of officially sanctioned programs, while proving that a manager who cares about work-life issues is a manager who gets results. Not only are their employees more content, they are — surprise, surprise – more productive.

These cutting-edge managers operate under the assumption that work and personal life are complementary, not competing, concerns, and that by adopting a win-win philosophy toward balancing these concerns, organizations and their individual employees can reap rewards.

To guide them, these executives use three mutually reinforcing principles. First, they make the company’s business objectives crystal clear and encourage employees to be equally clear about personal priorities. The objective is to hold an honest dialogue and then to craft a strategy for meeting goals, both the company’s and the individual’s.

Second, they recognize employees as "whole people." They know that when a manager helps employees balance their work life with the rest of their lives, they feel a stronger commitment to the organization. Besides, many employees have hidden talents that are transferable to the job.

And finally, these managers continually experiment with the way work is done, seeking approaches that enhance an organization’s performance while creating time for employees’ personal pursuits.

These managers encourage employees to question basic assumptions about work. We cling to age-old work models, including conventions established in the Industrial Age requiring employees to be physically on site during "normal" business hours. But new technology — e-mail, voice mail, teleconferencing, and computer networks — can improve productivity while freeing up time.

Smart managers know that business goals take precedence over process, so they do not penalize employees for putting personal concerns first, or for putting them on par with work concerns; managers simply use personal priorities as a road map to take them and their employees to the destination of choice: business success, achieved in tandem with individual fulfillment.

When applied together, these three principles — clarifying goals, treating employees as whole people and seeking new approaches — reinforce one another and, in fact, overlap. Encouraging employees to be explicit about their personal goals, for instance, is a prerequisite for recognizing and supporting a whole person; and valuing productivity over face-time is critical when experimenting with work methods.

Consider the case of Sam, the director of a 24-hour command center at a pharmaceutical plant. His crew monitored 10,000 "hot spots," including manufacturing process vaults with chemicals stored at minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Crewmembers must wear special protective suits and can stay in the vaults for only 10 minutes at a time. Longer stays are treated as emergencies.

Shifts changed 21 times a week, and exchanging information between crewmembers was cumbersome. The command center was already stressful, and to make matters worse, the number of hot spots was about to increase by 50 percent within a year, and perhaps double to 20,000 within two years.

Sam called a meeting to make business goals explicit: The group’s work was essential to the safe operation of the plant. A tight budget would not allow him to "throw more people at the problem." And he envisioned a command center that proactively anticipated plant site needs. Unless an alternative was found, the staff would have to work longer hours under more stressful conditions, which of course would affect their personal lives.

He then asked the staff to create a solution that met not only business needs, but personal ones. No experiment would be out of bounds, as long as it produced desired results.

The solution was comprehensive: Employees would work 12-hour shifts, with three days on and four days off one week, then four days on and three days off the next. Thus, in two weeks, each employee would work 84 hours — four more than in the past. Meanwhile, work schedules would be steady, time off more concentrated.

The new system’s results have exceeded expectations. It eliminated seven shifts, meaning information is exchanged seven fewer times, reducing errors. It also allowed staff to forecast plant site needs in advance, satisfying Sam’s vision. In short, morale is up. Stress is down. Productivity has improved.

As for off-hours life, the schedule has enabled employees to meet their needs in ways that weren’t possible in the past. One employee was finally able to attend school during the day and received a master’s degree. Many say the schedule has allowed them to relax more at home and to plan personal projects and events. The command center, once a place for hazardous, stressful duty, is today a magnet for transfers and new hires.

So, if the three life-friendly principles really work, why aren’t there more mavericks like Sam? Because some managers value face-time more than results. Others think delving into each employee’s personal life is too time-consuming and impractical.

But following the three principles does not involve much more time and energy than managing in more traditional ways. Bringing personal-life priorities into a conversation only involves a few additional questions, and the conversation can be so illuminating that it makes the process of developing and motivating people more honest and efficient.

Managers who use the principles do so typically without official sanction. Perhaps, as the business impact of their approach becomes better known, a shift will occur. Then, managers who once flew below the radar will themselves become beacons of change.

Stewart D. Friedman is director of both the Leadership Program and the Work/Life Integration Project at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Perry Christensen is with WFD Consulting in Boston. Jessica DeGroot is founder and executive director of the Third Path, a nonprofit agency in Philadelphia focused on the integration of work and personal life. The three are co-organizers of the Wharton Work/Life Roundtable. This article is based on a research paper previously published in the Harvard Business Review.