Employees Have Lives – Work/Life Balance in the Green Industry
January 25, 2022
The following is Part 4 of SingleOps’ series on Recruiting and Retaining employees in the Green Industry.
We all cognitively realize that the people that work for and with us have lives outside of work. We know they have other stuff going on outside of work. Whether you’re in landscaping, lawn care, tree care, Work/life balance in the Green Industry has become a hot topic.
But few employers, especially with the seasonality of the Green Industry, treat their employees as if this were the case.
Work/Life balance problems sound familiar to you?
We all get the seasonality of our industry. But how many times have you heard phrases like this?
“You have to make hay while the sun is shining?”
“We’ll take a break when things slow down?”
“My team gets three months off over the Winter, so I expect them to work hard the rest of the year.”
It may not be these phrases exactly, but you’ve heard something along these lines. And the truth is, this mentality is toxic to our industry.
What is Work/Life Balance?
I’ve heard business owners take two different approaches here. First, many will say, “It’s different for everyone, so why even try?” I’ve heard others say, “Since it’s different for everyone, they’ve got to tell me when they’re getting burnt out.”
The first approach is lazy. The second is naive.
It’s true that “work/life balance” is a bit woolly. What does it mean? I like this definition from Planergy:
While there’s no clear-cut answer in terms of time spent in each area, a healthy work-life balance is one that allows a person to accomplish everything they need to do professionally, while also ensuring they meet all home and family obligations without burnout.
You won’t get it right for every single employee. You should make an effort. Help your team achieve a balance between their responsibilities to your company and their commitments outside of work.
Why does this matter?
A pet peeve of mine is being late for a business meeting. Don’t get me wrong – I’m occasionally late to an appointment myself, especially in virtual meetings. It’s too easy to think, “I’ve got time to run and do this thing before our meeting.”
But in-person meetings are meetings for which I am rarely late. If I’m going to be running late at all, even as little as two minutes, I call, text or email (depending on the person’s preference) to communicate that. Sometimes I use all three methods of communication to let them know I’ll be late. I then apologize profusely when I arrive.
And you’ve probably run into this as well. Whether it’s a candidate or a vendor (“Why is the guy from SiteOne always late?”), it probably bothers you a little bit when people are late.
Why? Because it shows a lack of respect for your time, right? It makes you feel like the time you carved out in your schedule to accommodate them wasn’t appreciated.
When you schedule more work than you can produce, you’re doing the same thing to your employees when you institute “mandatory” overtime or weekends (or both). Full stop.
“But that’s different! I’m paying them!”
You might be saying, “That’s different. I’m paying them to be there, and I’m paying extra for that overtime.”
What you have done is make an assumption. You’re assuming that pay is the most important thing to your employees.
They’re husbands and wives, parents and grandparents, coaches and athletes, and actors and directors in their local stage companies. The people who work for you volunteer in their places of worship and non-profits in your community. All of these other commitments are equally or more important to them.
Your employees are not drones who exist solely to help get trees trimmed or pavers laid. They’re not mindless workers whose sole purpose is to generate a paycheck or even to help you serve your customers. They have dreams, hobbies, families, and passion projects that are all potentially more important to them than what you’re paying them to do.
When you’re forcing them into overtime work, pushing some crews to work 60+ hours every week, you’re like the person who arrives 25 minutes late for a meeting without explanation. But you’re doing to them every single day.
The Cost to Your Business
Besides signaling “I respect you and all you’ve got going on” by not overworking your staff, there are some tangible benefits to the business. Avoid chronically asking too much of your team; you’ll reap some additional rewards.
Employee burnout is a genuine issue. And, when people are overworked, they’re more likely to burn out. Working more overtime than is usual, working weekends, and disengagement from work are signs of burnout. Don’t believe me that people will walk away from your business because you’ve overworked them? Check out this post on LinkedIn. This popped up in my feed as I was writing this article. It’s only one example of what I’m talking about; you can find dozens of these types of posts every single day if you’re looking for them.
You’ve invested tons of time and money recruiting and training your workforce. Identifying and training great employees is a costly undertaking.
By showing more respect for their time by not overworking people, you’ll improve profitability by spending less time on recruiting and retraining new employees.
Even if you don’t offer healthcare to your employees (if you can but don’t, shame on you), this is a considerable cost. According to the Harvard Business Review, employee burnout accounts for $125 – $190 billion in healthcare costs annually.
The physical and psychological problems associated with employee burnout are well documented. In addition, overworked employees are far more likely to make poor decisions and have safety incidents at work.
Do you want to spend less for the healthcare you provide, pay less on your insurance premiums, have more productive workers, AND improve profitability by reducing employee turnover? Quit making them work 60 hours per week.
Story – A Tale of Two Companies
This is going to be very personal, so stick with me. I’ll show you how (and how not) to build loyalty to your company.
Several years ago, my wife got pregnant. It might not sound like a lot, but we’d struggled to get there, so it was a big deal for us.
Something went wrong with the pregnancy. I won’t go into all the details, but I was in the car, with my wife, on my way to the hospital when I got a call from my manager’s manager. A customer contract was due, and the deadline was only a couple of days away.
I explained the situation to him and told him I’d call later. He said, and I kid you not, “This will only take a minute,” and initiated a 3-way call between me, him, and the customer. He wanted to get them on record as being delinquent on the contract so he could document it. To my shame, I was too young and new at the job to tell him off. So I sat there, driving, with the phone on speaker and my wife looking on.
I didn’t even make it a year at that company.
Fast forward to January 2022. Our daughter is celebrating her first birthday, and my parents flew into town for the week. I only see them a few times a year, so I took time off from SingleOps. On Monday of that week, something fairly pressing came up, and there would be a slightly-urgent meeting. I was invited, so I told the group, “I can make that work; let me know what time.” My parents and wife would all have understood.
Instead, my manager messaged me privately and said, “We should be good on that meeting. Enjoy your time with family!” I put it in quotes because that’s exactly what he said to me.
Which place do you want to work for if you’re an employee? Of the two, which employer made me feel respected and valued? Which one will I continue to work for for a long time? Of course, it’s SingleOps.
How to Improve Work/Life Balance for Your Team
According to Forbes, “Employers should prioritize competitive compensation, comfortable office conditions, opportunities for professional growth and opportunities for social connections.” Obviously, your “office conditions” will vary. Still, the principle holds – do what you can to offer a competitive wage, sound equipment, excellent training, a clear path to advancement, and opportunities to connect socially with coworkers.
Some of you may be asking, “Where do I even start with this?” As always, we’re not going to leave you without any practical advice on how to help. Here are several steps you can take to begin to help your team achieve a work/life balance that works for them.
Set Realistic Growth Targets
I have seen this happen over and over again. A company sets aggressive growth targets, which is fine and good. Nothing wrong with aggressive growth if you can sustain it.
Often we say to our teams, “We need to grow the company by 20% this year!” without really explaining “Why.” Worse, we set that target without considering our capacity to produce that work.
When Spring rolls around, we tell our Sales teams to hustle! “Go sell everything you can, and make sure it’s profitable!” we tell them. And our Sales teams are incentivized by the commission on whatever they sell, so they sell a lot!
In the process, we’ve failed to communicate with production about the bandwidth to handle that production at the current staffing levels. No wonder there’s almost always tension between Sales and Production staff! They’re pointing the finger at one another when they should both be pointing the finger at ownership or the CEO.
You need either a massive capital expenditure investment in equipment for your Production team, enabling them to work much more efficiently or set lower targets. Take your available man-hours at 40 hours per week into consideration when planning your growth goals. If you’re coming up short on labor, you’d better recruit extremely aggressively or revisit your growth targets mid-season.
Either way, it’s not fair to put an expectation on your team that they’re going to work 60 hours a week from Day 1 in the Spring.
Paid Time Off
I will say this upfront: you must offer your team paid time off (PTO). That’s a staple of today’s workplace, and if you do nothing else, making this change will probably help your recruiting and retention efforts.
However, it’s not enough to offer PTO in today’s marketplace. It would be best to allow your team to use it when convenient for them. Yes, the business has needs, too. But if the business’ needs trump your employees’ needs, you’ll alienate them. Every. Single. Time.
Also, don’t bother your employees while they are away from the business. Whether they’re on vacation, sick, on parental leave, or caring for an ailing family member, that time is theirs. Do not interrupt it. Not even for a “quick question.” That is time they need to “recharge” to be productive when they come back to work.
What do you do if they’re in a critical role in your organization? You cross-train people. Make sure that someone else in the company knows how to do every part of their job. You don’t have to train their replacement; divvy up the responsibilities.
For example, if a manager is going to be out on PTO, have them teach others how to do parts of their job before they go. Have them train a supervisor on keeping track of timesheets. Have them train someone else on the load/unload procedures at the beginning and end of the day. Then, ask a third person to coordinate with procurement to ensure that all the plant material and mulch are available for the daily jobs.
There’s an obvious need for having a formal, documented attendance policy. It allows you to pretty quickly and effectively weed out the people you’ll inevitably hire who are just there for the paycheck. They’re not truly committed to the company’s goals and mission, and when something better comes along, they’ll flake out on attendance.
I’ll say this, though; your attendance policy shouldn’t be weaponized. You should adhere as closely as possible to it for the people who are a drag on the business (constantly late, don’t show up, etc.).
For actual team players, those you know are a fantastic asset to the company and don’t abuse these policies, work with them. Find creative ways to help them avoid having progressive discipline in their employee file or losing their job.
Helping Good Employees with Attendance Issues
There are some ingenious solutions to this. You can use a “rolling” calendar for attendance issues rather than a strict yearly calendar. That way, attendance issues “drop off” after a specific timeframe rather than following an employee for the rest of the year.
You can also empower your employees to help out. I’ll give you an example here. One place I worked had a guy who worked like a horse and loved everyone. He was incredibly versatile and skilled; you could send him out by himself to do several smaller jobs in a day or ask him to lead a crew. He was a great asset to the company.
His daughter had a child who died unexpectedly and tragically under two years of age. It was a shock to the whole family, but this guy took the loss of the grandchild extremely hard. He needed time above and beyond his accrued vacation to recover.
So the company created a policy where, for family hardships, others could donate PTO. They allowed people from all company levels to give their vacation time to this guy. He ended up with about three extra weeks of vacation, which he took to grieve. This guy was also still able to take a vacation with his family later that year and continue the healing process as a larger family. He came back ready to work and with a crazy amount of loyalty and gratitude to the owner and his coworkers.
The smart business owner, President, or CEO understands that people are the organization’s backbone. Without them, you literally cannot get any work done or make any money.
More importantly, they understand that the people who work for them are complex, unique, and deserving of respect and dignity. Finding ways to help them balance their job responsibilities with their commitments outside of work is a great way to retain your existing workforce and build a stream of referred candidates.
Go back and read Part 3: A Healthy Culture.
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