Working Girl: Denver Thought Leaders Discuss Healthy Workplaces

Sydney Hodgson | @SydneyLHodgson

The phrase “work-life balance” is everywhere. Employers pride themselves on offering it and employees strive for it, but what does it actually mean?

For better or for worse, technology has merged the personal and professional, allowing for constant interaction between our home space and work space. Yet the world balance implies a world in which work and life reside on opposing sides of the seesaw. While the idea is important, the phrase “work-life balance” ignores the complexities of working women in a modern world.

Lili Tenney is the cofounder and director of Health Links, a local organization working to make healthy business a priority. Health Links hosts an annual event and conference to discuss healthy business and celebrate Colorado’s healthiest places to work. It is an environment for business leaders to connect and talk about the successes and challenges they face while creating healthy workplaces. The Health Links annual event and celebration takes place August 17th at the University of Colorado South Denver campus in Parker, CO.   

Tenney, right, cofounder and director of Health Links. 

Tenney, right, cofounder and director of Health Links. 

In anticipation of the event, Tenney brought together a group of female business leaders and visionaries to discuss their experiences and feelings towards the topic. Virginia Santy, a distinguished panelist at the Health Links conference is co-founder of Women in Kind, the first full-service co-working space designed especially for women and helping them meet challenges in business, at home, and in life. Gloria Schoch works in Community Affairs Management at Miller Coors, an iconic local corporation championing diversity and inclusion in an industry traditionally lacking such efforts and initiatives.

The women gathered over iced teas in LoHi to discuss their experiences as women in the workplace, the challenges of creating a healthy environment for employees, and how they approach the idea of balance.

Sydney Hodgson: How do you define a family friendly workplace?

Lili Tenney: At least in my mind, and how we are defining it, it is a place that is supportive of the needs of an employee. One size does not fit all because every employee differs in terms of what our experience with work is. So we talk a lot about a leadership and management commitment around being able to design the culture and set the mood of caring about what working families are doing. That can be for someone who is single and ensuring that they have the time they need to unplug or it can be something as formal as paid family leave when someone needs to go take care of a loved one.

Gloria Schoch: I think that is the paradox of being connected, of living in this digital age where we are constantly online. More and more employers are allowing for telecommuting and it’s not really where you are working but if you are getting the job done and you can do everything with the click of a button from your home. You don't have to leave your home--you can order your groceries there, do all of your work meetings there--but that also can create some isolation. Studies show that there is more productivity around telecommuting and having that flexibility and I think that is the beauty of starting to see more coworking spaces come to fruition, like Women in Kind, where you do have that space to create and that community connection that you may not be getting just working from home or from a coffee shop by yourself. You can meet with other like minded individuals to spark ideas and to support each other. Sometimes we forget having personal connectivity to each other is so important even though we do have so much connectivity happening online.

Virginia Santy: A great concept to consider is what workers, professionals, teams are exposed to. We think about workplaces as these tiny, or large with bigger corporations, ecosystems wherein you have to plant and grow your life. And oftentimes that life is a professional life, but to think your professional life is the only place that is going to be nurtured in that ecosystem, or conversely potentially hindered in that ecosystem, is very short-sided. So to the extent that a company can say, “sure, we will allow you to work from home and telecommute, but perhaps we can also allow you to go to this other ecosystem that you may find more nourishing than our traditional ecosystem,” I think that is a huge potential benefit.

LT: And there are still a lot of double standards and at the end of the day you want the best of all worlds. You want the flexibility and you want to be able to have support when you need time and space. But then being in a management position--and I think this is interesting speaking to women that are business leaders--you also feel the stress of getting the work done and having teams that you can trust with that flexibility. It’s a hard thing to balance.

VS: Throw in there loving work. Everyone at this table loves their work, right? I think that is a hard thing, too. It makes balance harder. And maybe easier in some ways. What do you find?

GS: Yeah, that is a good question. I am definitely a workaholic. My husband tells me that all the time, that sometimes you have to just shut it off, right? And I do think that in this day in age it is just expected that you are always connected, and we have become much more efficient because of the connectivity but at the same time it can be draining if you do not figure out how to negotiate it.

VS: And be aware of self care.

LT: It is a new form of life management, I think.

SH: Do we see workplaces starting to become more overt about making sure employees are getting what they need, or is it in the individual employee’s hands?

LT: Through Health Links I see that workplaces are starting to set up fundamental policies, programs with leadership support behind them. Now the tricky part is making sure all workers have access to the types of benefits they need, and in some cases you have industries that can't possibly do it. In the healthcare industry you are on call, checking in and checking out, and our doctors and nurses are some of the most unhealthy workers out there. We see workplaces trying to take initiatives, especially around being family friendly and being able to offer benefits to all salary and hourly workers, but I think more needs to be done.

GS: And think about a large organization like Miller Coors where you have a lot of manufacturing employees. Our brewery does not close--it is operating 24/7--so even though they are high paying jobs you have people who are working two or three shifts. In response, Miller Coors helps provide wellness opportunities. The wellness center will actually have trainers go into the facility and do exercises with employees for 15 minutes, and that is very much encouraged. On the corporate side you need to have the right benefits and incentives in place to attract and retain the top talent. From a corporate standpoint, one of our top goals is having 45% of our leadership be women and people of color.

The beer industry has been so heavily male dominated and so we need to change the game in beer and shift the perspective. One in three beer drinkers are women and in the past a lot of the marketing has just been directed towards men. When you provide these benefits and flexible workplaces and you are able to get top female talent on the marketing team who know how to appeal to women. We are starting to see with a lot of our brands that our marketing is becoming more purpose-driven, gender neutral in some instances, and in other cases really focused on appealing to women. This wouldn't have happened if we didn't have women at the decision-making table and if we weren't encouraging them to stay by providing these great, flexible, work environments and projects.

Schoch relays the diversity and inclusion efforts of Miller Coors. 

Schoch relays the diversity and inclusion efforts of Miller Coors. 


VS: That is such a good point. The whole focus there is retention, You can bring people to the table but how do you keep them? They are making an investment in you; how do you show them you are investing in them in return? A theme I have heard here is how to use benefits as a retention tool.

LT: And that is where we have really seen the conversation pivot with employers. Five to ten years ago it was all about “return on investment” and about healthcare costs and reducing chronic disease, and now it is about recruitment and retention. When you look at women in the workplace that are starting families and that are wanting to have careers, whether it is having children or being good partners, there is a lot of questioning around whether going back to work makes sense. And then what happens when these women, these highly talented workers  leave? I have witnessed a lot of friends that really do struggle with that experience, with the balance and the guilt of not being able to be as passionate with their work or vice-versa. I wanted to ask you that, Ginna, knowing that you are a mother.

VS: We know having children is a pivotal time in a woman’s career. It isn’t just retention of women writ large but retention of women at that critical moment. More and more places of work need to be mindful of that moment, retain those women who are so important to the success of a company and who are adding the valuable perspective.

LT: Even when you get to the point where places of work offer benefits, there can be a culture piece that gets in the way. Many places, even though a benefit or time off or flexibility is offered, it is expected that you aren’t really going to take it. That is where you can have some simple, low cost solutions that are around building that culture in your workplace. It doesn't need to be a huge costly program that is run within a company, it can be little things that matter.

VS: I am so happy that you mentioned culture, because it is more insidious and it harbors different biases. First generation gender bias looked like two columns in the newspaper: here are the dude jobs and here are the lady jobs. It also looked like someone grabbing your ass at work when you are making coffee. It is total Mad Men era. Second generation gender bias is so much more covert and looks like two people up for committee review, and the dude goes to the finance committee and the woman goes to the social committee. If you want to talk about cultivating people for the C-suite, you don't need the social committee experience, but you do need the experience the finance committee would give you. Second generation gender bias is much more difficult to identify, it is much more difficult to catalog, therefore it is all the more dangerous because it feels like this thing that is happening to you, that you cannot necessarily make a case for. It is so cultural. There are unwritten things that fly below the radar…

GS: Unconscious bias.

LT: Absolutely.

VS: There are ways policies and culture can really give women a kick in the pants.

LT: Coming back to the question “what is family friendly,” what is family? The unconscious bias piece, I think includes the fact workplaces need to be thinking about family structure, about being fair and equitable when we are thinking about how workplaces can really support this broader definition of family and work life. That is why I like using the term “work-life integration” instead of “family friendly.”

VS: And “work life integration” is a great term to replace balance, as well.

LT: Yes, we are replacing it.

VS: I can’t understand why that term has hung on. I think integration is a very useful term, because I never stop thinking about my daughter when I am at work, and as much as I try, it is very difficult to stop thinking about work when I am with her.

LT: Is that a bad thing?

VS: I don’t think it always is. And I would love to figure out more ways to bring her into my work world. I just so believe in Women in Kind as a solution. It is the first time we have ever built a workplace from the ground up that confronts every challenge that has been placed on women’s individual shoulders since they entered the workplace in such large numbers in the 20th century.

At that time, women walked in and said, “We promise, we are the same as men!” but women aren’t the same as men! So how can we say for the first time that we value you enough to see how you are different and we want to help with any challenges that arise from those  differences? So when I say I never stop thinking about Kiki, I want to take her to work with me--sometimes--and be able to say, “You are cool here, and you can come see what I am doing, and I will come check in on you.” Women in Kind feels like, for the first time ever, thinking about how do these things integrate and how do they roll together. So I love the term integration and hope we can kill off balance.

GS: The more women that do get to a decision making table, the more things are going to shift. It is exciting to see. Some employers are making this more of a priority, even just with the Women’s Chamber here in town, The Women’s Leadership Foundation, and the Corporate Salute--the corporations who have three or more women on their board. If you have more than three women on your corporate board you are a stronger and more revenue driven organization. So many CEOs, a lot of them males but some women too, have stepped up to the plate to get to that 3+ number for the board. They know it is a competitive advantage as well.

VS: That goes to your earlier point that as soon as you get women around the table in your marketing department they change the perspective, same with women on the board, it changes the perspective and benefits everybody.

LT: It does. Diversity grows businesses. More employers are starting to realize that. I hope the trend continues.

Left to right: Schoch, Tenney, Santy, and writer Hodgson. Photo credits: Billie Jo Santy.

Left to right: Schoch, Tenney, Santy, and writer Hodgson. Photo credits: Billie Jo Santy.