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Work/Life Balance

Mental health in the workplace has been on my mind recently. Our organization has just been through a major realignment process, which resulted in some layoffs, and I am seeing firsthand the impact such drastic change can have, not only on those whose jobs are lost but on those left behind. When you look at the number of hours today's workers put in - not just at work, but also being available through the ubiquitous Blackberry - factor in being asked to accomplish more with less and add a dash of uncertainty about job security, you have a recipe for a very high stress environment. Add in the responsibilities of family and a great number of workers today feel very overwhelmed and struggle to achieve what needs to be done each day.

Kate Moore, RPR
MQ Editor
What signs do we see that this trend is not only harmful for employees but for businesses as well? The Conference Board of Canada estimates burnout is costing Canadian businesses $12 billion per year in health claims, lost productivity and absenteeism. The business case for implementing programs that support staff in achieving balance in their work and home lives is a strong one. To wit, the Conference Board reports that employees who felt stressed in achieving balance in their lives took an average of 7.2 days of sick leave per year, whereas those who felt less stress in that regard only took an average of 3.6 days.

What can we as managers and supervisors do, even if there is no formal program in the workplace? First and foremost, model the behaviour. Don't work through your lunch, take your vacation and try to keep overtime to a minimum. Allowing the freedom of flex time where possible can also be a boon to workers with family obligations. I must confess that while I encourage my staff to do all of the above, I am not the best role model for it and I probably need to take my own advice. This investment can pay excellent dividends, not only in terms of a happier, healthier workforce, but in the attraction and retention of potential employees; a US study done by Metlife showed that more than half of today's employees rate work/life balance as a key criterion in job selection. Food for I count down the last 28 days to my vacation!

Online Consultation

With Internet use rates hovering around 80%, it is a matter of time before all Canadians use the Internet. YouTube, wikis, MySpace, iGoogle are everyday examples of how the Internet is evolving. Are the corporate world and government using the Internet to consult clients or shareholders? Yes, but often with outdated approaches. New online tools are available and their effectiveness is remarkable.

Joseph Peters
Posting lengthy discussion papers, which are often incomprehensible and needlessly inaccessible, to engage clients, shareholders or stakeholders or experts is no longer effective, nor are the questions asked. We need to create good discussion questions. One of my all time favourites is, “Tell us your thoughts.” When five people answer, this is manageable. How does this work with 50, 500, 5000, especially when a suggested word length is not communicated?

The real reason the discussion document approach is outdated and ineffective is the signal that it conveys: “We really don’t want to hear from you, but we have to ask you, so here you go.” These types of token engagements that serve as the “consultation checkmark” create almost the same level of cynicism as the phrase, “mission accomplished.” We need to move beyond the 1995 approaches. Are there alternatives? Yes.

Just the same, online consultations shouldn’t be driven by the shiniest new tool. Take the wiki. Wikis are great for a community of practice to collaborate on an issue but they are not appropriate for the large majority of public or client consultations. Wikis work best when there is a pre-existing relationship between users – Wikipedia is the behemoth exception to this rule. Simply put, how many businesses or government departments are willing to blue sky a policy and leave it to the masses to shape?

So, what are the alternatives? A properly designed consultation (online or otherwise) can allow you to provide a baseline of information so that participants can make an informed contribution. This is not 50 pages in a discussion document, but carefully condensed and balanced information or scenarios that allow a participant to work through an issue. Online consultations provide you an opportunity to not only engage clients, employees, shareholders, stakeholders, experts, and citizens, but also provide a chance to inform, or even educate.

How do you do this online? What has worked for many organizations is a consultation workbook or choicebook. It allows participants to work through the issue, consider background information and facts with questions sprinkled in along the way. We describe this as a web survey on “steroids,” because it provides information to consider before questions are asked. Does this make a difference? When properly designed, completion rates hover around 80% whereas the average web survey will have a completion rate of around 15 to 20%. Quite a contrast!

Moreover, the quantitative choicebook model has a qualitative partner – the share-your-story or idea tool. This is a structured means that allows a participant to pick a theme/topic, create a title, and enter their content. A rule of thumb is a word limit of 250 to 500 words.

The choicebook and the share-your-idea tools are simple baby steps to holding an effective online consultation. However, the tools are not enough on their own. Communications and outreach are essential to getting the word out. Increasingly, high performing organizations are creating client or stakeholder databases so that they can get the word out to their target audiences. Email is the best way to get people to participate.

These are the basics. We haven’t even covered discussion forums, chats, or small group dialogues. And we also haven’t discussed the feedback loop. What if everyone who participated in an online consultation received a report? What if it was personalized? Getting back to participants is poorly done in general.

Online consultations allow broad voices to participate in the issues that are important to them. It allows business and government to get beyond the usual suspects. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it really doesn’t have to be so 1995.

Joseph Peters is a partner and founder of Ascentum, provider of online and in-person public involvement services in Canada. Find out more at


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