Work/life balance: obligatory or obsolete?

Work/life balance has been a hot topic of late, but has it reached its use-by date? Craig Donaldson spoke with a roundtable of HR directors: Alcoa’s David Willett; Network Ten’s Graham Kethel; Deloitte’s Peter May; Goldman Sachs JBWere’s Dianne Jacobs and Microsoft’s Mark Newton, to expose a common number of misconceptions and examine the latest developments on the issue

Work/life balance has been a hot topic of late, but has it reached its use-by date? Craig Donaldson spoke with a roundtable of HR directors: Alcoas David Willett; Network Tens Graham Kethel; Deloittes Peter May; Goldman Sachs JBWeres Dianne Jacobs and Microsofts Mark Newton, to expose a common number of misconceptions and examine the latest developments on the issue

The balance between work and personal life has come in for a battering of late. The latest figures from The Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the average number of hours worked by full-time employees has risen to 41 hours a week. Managers are working an average of 50 hours, while one third of males spend more than 45 hours a week at work.

Another recent survey of almost 1,000 employees from Hays Personnel found that 78 per cent wanted a better work/life balance, and almost 9 out of 10 thought they would produce stronger results at work if they had a balance. The conundrum was that just under a third felt their career would suffer if they did. So does the concept of work/life balance still hold water?

Is the concept of work/life balance still relevant?

May: I’m not so sure about in general terms. Does work/life balance make sense any more? In business it has become somewhat moribund if I think of it as a term. Like a lot of ideas, they either evaporate very quickly because it was sub-standard in the first place and there isn’t any currency in it, or it takes on a life of its own and it becomes more integrated into the life of the business.

With all the focus on the bottom line, some organisations might not see it as a priority. Mind you, if something happened to the bottom line, then perhaps things would change. But by and large some people are doing it for the sake of doing it because it sounds nice. Others are practising it because they generally believe it’s the right thing to do, and others are simply not doing it at all because at the end of the day they believe they have got to keep the shareholders happy.

Newton: I think the term has just been overused. I don’t think anyone has sat down and thought about what it really means. I actually don’t like the term. I think I have a Pavlovian dog response when I hear about it, and I don’t believe work/life balance as a notion is that helpful.

Jacobs: I think it’s an idea ahead of its time. Work/life balance really started during the dot com boom, as a way of helping employees gain flexibility. We have gone though a different economic cycle where the employment market has changed. It’s a different workforce today and in reality it’s just too tough for businesses to actually honour the promise of work/life balance. Maybe if you look into a crystal ball in a few years time when businesses are coping better with globalisation, changing demographics, the ageing workforce, and more part-time employees, then I think what will come out of that will be a better work/life balance. Whether it’s another name – it might just be flexible working – we’ll have to wait and see.

Willett: I can see that it’s a really important issue moving forward. I think the kind of workforce that we’re going to have 10 years from now is going to see this is a much bigger issue. I was talking to my son about going to university and getting a job the other day, and he said to me that the latest research is that people are going to live to be 120 years old so he didn’t need to rush into work. So I think there’s going to be a whole different view about priorities and what people want to do in work and life.

How do you see the concept today and in the future?

Jacobs: I thought surely this is a dead issue with HR people, but we do have to look at it many times. The real issue is that we all have people who are stressed by long working hours but who want a very successful career, but they also want to balance that out with their family. They want to watch their children grow up and contribute to that. So at the moment I think the pressure is more from individuals in an organisation rather than on the development of policy – that’s the real conflict at the moment.The trend is now shifting toward creating an environment where people have choice, or the term that I am starting to look at is ‘dual centric’ – helping people with their career lifecycle so that will help them in their personal lives too. So it’s not feeling guilty about being at work and it’s not feeling guilty about spending time with the family. It’s actually having a healthy approach to both aspects if you like, and trying to get a focus that is appropriate on both levels rather than trying to set one up against the other.

Newton: Rather than talking about the idea of organisations enabling people to create work/life balance, I think a more helpful idea is to enable people to have choice and work and life issues. As an organisation we can’t force someone to have a balanced life. What we can do though, is create an environment in which people can exercise choice. It’s looking at the whole being, the whole person, and that’s where I think work/life balance comes into play. I think we’ve got an obligation as organisations to provide a healthy work environment. I know that’s a broad statement, but by that I mean we really want people that are well grounded and they feel okay at home and at work. It’s looking at the whole being, the whole person, and that’s where I think work/life balance comes into play.

We did a couple of flexible work arrangement experiments to test the water. The senior team was really nervous about job share situations – they said it wouldn’t work, or the customers wouldn’t like it. But when we tried it, to their surprise it worked. So we have that in place, but in reality a tiny proportion of people use it – only four groups. While there was a big fear factor there at the start, people think just the fact that you offer it is great. So it’s about providing the offer there for people to have choice.

Willett: It also depends on what kind of workforce you’re talking about. If you’re talking about our 24 hour 7 day a week workforce on the shop floor, then I think the whole concept of work/life balance is one that’s very meaningful for them. It provides the flexibility around roles and work activities, with job share arrangements, permanent part-time work and so forth.

The higher you move up the organisation though, then people are going to have to make decisions. If you want to be the managing director, you’re going to have to focus pretty hard on the work aspects of your life. And they’re going to consume a lot of your time. So you make certain choices at certain times in your career path, and different choices at other times.

We surveyed our senior executive group about six years ago, but we also surveyed their partners as well. The biggest issue coming out of that was the unbelievable difference between the two groups. The views of the people working versus the views of their partners was substantially different. The argument that there was balance in the relationship was pretty much threatened, because there obviously wasn’t. It led to a lot of changes. The main change was that the issue was up for discussion – people got to talk about what is really happening here, and they changed their behaviour as a consequence. It had a quite profound effect.

How much of a role does culture play in the issue?

Jacobs: If someone puts their hand up and says they want to work four days a week because they have come back from maternity leave, it’s probably easier to make it happen with a manger. The best way to do it is to have a pilot program, demonstrating that someone can make it work. With the right performance monitoring and a very supportive direct manager, you can actually model how work/life balance can be an advantage. But for us, they tend to be more of our people coming back from maternity leave, so it’s just one aspect of the work/life balance but it is not a total one.

But it’s a bit different when you have got the senior male executive who has to be on a conference call at 1:30 in the morning because you’ve got global market concerns. It’s more difficult for that individual to put their hand up and say, ‘Look, I would rather work four days a week.’ The culture of the organisation would be to get serious about your career. And they are conflicts.

Newton: Culture is a really important concept. That’s very real for everyone who works in an organisation because it’s about the norms and what’s right and what’s wrong. What tends to happen is that this myth is perpetuated that you have to work your bum off for the first zillion years of your career, and then you can relax and start to call the shots. Maybe it does not need to be that way if we set a different trend. Working very long hours these days I think is more of a mark of incompetence, rather than productivity necessarily.

Jacobs: There does need to be clarity around what constitutes performance and what constitutes contribution. If there’s clarity around those issues then it’s not a case of you have to be seen to be working, but you have to be seen as part of the team and seen to be contributing to the team.

Kethel: I think you can only provide the platform. You put in a framework and put the policies out there, but you can’t force people to adapt to it. We’ve all worked in companies where people leave the building at 9pm because they believe their careers are best served by simply being seen. The main driver is flexibility and fair and equitable treatment of staff.

How much does the concept of permission play in culture?

Willett: It is about the issue about permission. One of the cultural changes we’ve faced is getting people to understand that they don’t have to ask for permission. There’s just such strong undertones at times in terms of expectations, but that is changing. More people in our organisation at the executive and manager levels are working from home, and that’s changing fairly dramatically. In the corporate office here, there aren’t many people here after 5 o’clock quite frankly, but people mightn’t have finished work – it’s just that their structuring their day so that they are home at time that’s fairly precious for the family. They’re more than likely sending emails or on the phone, particularly in a global organisation, but it’s just about structuring the day differently to make sure that you have that balance.

That’s how we’ve tried to structure it, so that we have substantial flexibility for people to negotiate within teams and crews about taking time off, or doing things differently and how that’s going to be covered. It’s all having an understanding around give and take, and also being able to pull someone up when they’re taking advantage of the group. It’s very much an issue around empowerment. Sometimes people don’t – you can empower them but they won’t confront the issue. And that’s a real problem. But again that’s a decision that they’re making.

Newton: The main point on culture is really about setting an example from the top down. One of our senior executives recently came back from Microsoft Corporate and stood up in front of the entire company and said, ‘The thing you really should know about me is my priorities. My number one priority is family, number two priority is health, and my number three priority is Microsoft.’ It was like, ‘What is this guy saying? He is a heretic!’ But what that did was give people that overall permission to sort out whatever they need. In a lot of ways, work and life issues are very personal things. If we give people permission to sort it out, then they can do that. But then you need to create an environment that keeps people honest about it.

May: What the organisation needs to do is to create an environment where people feel they have permission to dialogue with both mangers and also with their clients about how they’re going to get there. Yes, there are constraints, but because we’re dealing with knowledge workers, what we have to do therefore is give them a sense of personal agency, or the idea of permission. I actually find it’s a very hard thing to do. Sometimes people want the organisation to choose for them, but it’s about enabling the person to make choices – that is what I think our job is for knowledge workers.

How do you secure CEO buy-in on work and life issues?

Willett: From my perspective it’s just an issue of pragmatism. If work/life balance policies and initiatives help retain good people and ultimately improve the overall performance of the business, then it only makes sense that the CEO should be behind them.

Newton: I agree. I think for a CEO it’s like any people policy. If they are a true believer then they will adopt what makes good economic and pragmatic sense. It’s good for bottom line. People will see that – when we look at what’s behind the success for organisations, often we have to talk to people to find out about how happy they really are working for great companies and why they don’t leave. Great people in organisations help the organisation become great – economically and in every other sense. Work and life issues are one dimension to that, and that’s how good CEOs will see it as well. Unless the CEO is a true believer in people policies it’s going to be hard and you will see it very clearly.

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