Microsoft improves parental leave: A step toward work-life balance?

Starting in November, Microsoft will expand its paid leave policy for new parents, the company announced Wednesday.

Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/AP/File
Joe Belfiore, a vice president at Microsoft, welcomes visitors to a launch event for Windows 10, July 29, 2015, in Bellevue, Wash. On Wednesday, Aug. 6, a day after Netflix announced its new parental leave policy, Microsoft said it will expand company benefits for new parents starting Nov. 1.

Microsoft is upping its baby-benefits game.

A day after Netflix announced its pioneering parental leave policy, granting unlimited leave for a child's first year, tech giant Microsoft made a similar decision: Come Nov. 1, the company will offer 20 weeks of paid time off to new mothers and 12 weeks to non-birth parents.

"As we ask our employees to bring their ‘A’ game to work every day to achieve our mission, we believe it’s our responsibility to create an environment where people can do their best work," Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s executive vice president for human resources, wrote Wednesday in a blog post announcing the change. "A key component of this is supporting our employees with benefits that matter most to them."

The decision keeps the spotlight trained on policies for paid parental leave in the United States, which is alone among developed countries in not guaranteeing paid time off for new mothers. It also draws attention to the broader issue of work-life balance – a goal that some experts say is an impossible dream for most Americans.

"I still strongly believe that women can 'have it all' (and that men can too). I believe that we can 'have it all at the same time,' " Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor emerita at Princeton and president and CEO of Washington-based think tank New America, wrote for The Atlantic in 2012. "But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured."

Having a fulfilling, meaningful career that includes the opportunity for professional growth as well as a full, satisfying family life depends "almost entirely" on the type of job one has, wrote Dr. Slaughter, who in 2011 left her post at the State Department to return to teaching, which gave her more time with her two kids. Most jobs, however, don’t allow for that kind of flexibility, she added.

"The minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be," she continued.

Full-time US employees work an average of 47 hours a week, "almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails," Gallup reported in 2014. Federal employment laws typically use the 40-hour work week as the standard for full-time employment, Gallup noted, but plenty of employees tend to work longer hours – sometimes as an indication of personal gumption, others because of pay structure. The average annual wage in the US for 2014 was $47,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

By contrast, workers in countries such as Germany and Switzerland average 35 hours of work per week – and still make about the same amount annually as the average US employee, CNN Money reported last year. German workers also receive better worker protections than their global counterparts and maintain high levels of productivity, according to The Huffington Post.

The difference has much to do with American culture, where it is acceptable for work to interrupt personal time but not vice versa, wrote author and social psychologist Ron Friedman in a CNN op-ed. Americans expect work and life to be segregated, he noted, despite studies showing that "organizations are far better off empowering employees to integrate work and life, in ways that position them to succeed at both."

Companies such as outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, which empowers employees to set their own hours and provides on-site daycare access – and which has seen profits triple in five years – exemplify the success of that model, Mr. Friedman added.

The highly competitive tech industry has often tried to lead the way: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, along with Netflix and Microsoft, have in recent years implemented policies that improve working conditions and benefits for their employees.

Critics have said that too much flexibility can restrict or confuse employees, or make them feel guilty and fear resentment from their colleagues. And they don't substitute for other factors necessary for a balanced life for Americans – things like national legislation and cultural gender expectations.

Still, such policies are a beginning.

"It raises the bar," said Stewart Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and founding director of the school's Work/Life Integration Project, to Business Insider. "It's just another signal that we are in the midst of revolutionary change in how we think about the structure of work."

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