Family-friendly, or freeloader-friendly?

It's hard for managers - and employees - to keep things fair when team members need personal time off, says Fortune's Anne Fisher. An expert offers a few tips.

By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: My team has been together for about 8 years, with very little turnover. We're pretty close-knit, and I've tried to foster a very supportive environment, where we focus on what we all need as people and figure out how to make workloads balance out over the long haul.

Several folks have started thinking about, and others have already started, families. Our company tends to be relatively family-friendly, with good vacation policies (4 weeks for all non-hourly employees), and leaves a great deal to the discretion of the manager.

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What's the right work-life balance strategy for you?

1. Which of the following statements best describes you?
I'm comfortable having others do home and yard chores for me.
I prefer to do things myself.

I'm struggling, though, about making sure all of us have the same expectations. Generally, if one of us needs to go to the doctor for a couple of hours, we don't take the day off, but stay late or otherwise make up the time. Additionally, it's generally pretty easy to do our jobs from home.

I would love to hear your thoughts on whether the following should be taken as vacation time, or sick time, or what seems fair to an uninvolved outsider. I do think if I give some in this regard, it comes back in spades, but I also think that this philosophy opens me up to being taken advantage of, and there are different expectations around the team.

  1. A wife's prenatal visits, if the expectation is that the employee will go to all of them.
  2. The little one didn't sleep last night. May the parent take a sick day to try to recover?
  3. The little one needs to go to the doctor.
  4. The little one is sick. The parent "works" from home.

-Single and Trying to be Supportive

Dear Trying: Ah. You've raised some questions here that have a way of making people hot under the collar. Teammates of parents with young kids complain about being left to take up the slack when Mom or Dad has to leave early (or doesn't show up at all). Parents feel torn, and resentful, when needlessly rigid work schedules put them between a rock and a hard place.

And it's not just a matter of parents vs. the childless: Increasingly, employees everywhere are faced with caring for an elderly parent, or have other serious outside commitments that are at odds with a standard 40-hours-at-the-desk workweek.

So managers like you get stuck in the middle, trying to be fair to everybody and, oh by the way, make sure the work gets done.

Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute (, a New York City-based nonprofit that studies work-life issues, understands your plight. First of all, she says, people do have different expectations about how much time out is reasonable.

"It's important to sit everyone down and have honest discussions about this," she says. "In my own organization, which is small" - 16 staffers in the office and a few telecommuters - "we're having a meeting this week to talk about people's expectations about time. How far in advance should you try to warn your teammates if you're not going to be around? How much vacation time should you have to use up on a child's illness? Team members need to come to some sort of agreement on these issues."

Part of the reason people are struggling is that, while technology now lets us do so-called knowledge work from just about anywhere, "many of us still are ingrained with the old idea that presence equals productivity, or being in the office all the time is synonymous with commitment," Galinsky observes. "That isn't necessarily true. You can waste time in the office as well as you can anywhere else, and having other demands on your time may actually make you more efficient. But the old stereotypes die hard."

The main issue, she notes, is whether the work is getting done: "It's important to measure people's performance by results, not by how much time they spend at their desks. If someone isn't contributing for whatever reason, you as the manager have to sit down with that person and discuss it" - without penalizing the entire team by setting new, more stringent rules about how people allocate their time.

"Flexibility has to work for both the employer and the employee," says Galinsky. "For companies, that means recognizing that people can have a life and still be committed and productive. For employees, it means being considerate of teammates and mindful of deadlines, of what absolutely must get done regardless of any outside commitment, and so on."

"And yes, there may always be one or two people who 'take advantage' of flexibility to do less than their share. But those few can be weeded out," she adds. "You can't manage everyone based on that 1% who slack off."

Something else to remember: "At some time or other, all of us - whether we have children or not - need help from teammates. It could be because your house is flooded, or your mother is in the hospital, or it could be anything. Willingness to cover for each other when someone is in a jam is part of what being a team is all about."

So try to encourage a spirit of generosity, and don't let people get too nitpicky. With all that in mind, here are Galinsky's comments on your 4 scenarios:

1. Ask the solicitous spouse how he plans to make up the time. He's probably already got a strategy in mind, like coming in early the next day, working late, or finishing the work at home.

2. Why not? "In practical terms, sick days really cover everyone in the household, not just the employee," says Galinsky. Besides, a parent who hasn't slept all night is unlikely to be at the top of his or her game anyway - rather as if he or she had a really bad cold.

3. As long as your team members keep making up the time spent on such errands by working late or coming in early the next day - as you note they're already doing - this shouldn't be a reason to take either a vacation day or a sick day.

4. Since you say your jobs are generally pretty easy to do from home, why not? Your quotation marks around "work" suggest there is some doubt the person is really working, and therefore should take a sick day or a vacation day. But again, let the results (not the face time) be your guide.

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