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This is the third of our series of articles aimed at human resource managers, line managers and others responsible for organising, managing, supporting, recruiting, training and retaining staff and with an interest in introducing more flexible working methods.

In this issue we consider the issues around work-life balance - a recent term covering the conflicts between work and home and measures to address them in a way that benefits the employer as well as the employee.

 

 

 

Work-life balance

This is modern life in the Western world:

  • Stress levels are on an ever-upward trend

  • People work longer hours than ever

  • In an increasing proportion of households both partners go out to work

  • Single parents have to work all hours to make ends meet. 

Futurists throughout the last century foretold a coming age of leisure, where automation and computing took the strain, liberating us for rich, rewarding and balanced lives.  But it has failed to materialise.  Instead, those of us in employment work harder and longer.  Those of us who don't work live in straitened circumstances, unable to enjoy the enforced leisure and domesticity.

Does it have to be like that?

Leaving aside the question of redistributing wealth - which seems to be on no major political party's agenda - the solution has to revolve around how we organise our working lives. 

And the first step is recognising that the answer is "No, it doesn't have to be like that" - if employers and employees are willing to be flexible.

The benefits can be felt in three areas:

  • employees can reduce stress, and become more productive and motivated, and happier, as they achieve a better work-life balance 

  • companies can boost staff morale, and introduce practices which are more efficient and effective 

  • socially excluded groups who of necessity have to prioritise home life (e.g. because of caring responsibilities) may gain access to employment opportunities with companies which allow a better balance.

The following sections illustrate how flexible work can help to take the strain and redress the balance.

Flexible hours:

Arrangements for flexible hours working can be of particular benefits for parents with younger children, who need taking to and from school, or people with other caring requirements.  There are a wide range of models of flexible hours arrangement, which allow employees greater or lesser autonomy.  Simply not having to be at the office at 9.00 in the morning can relieve much of the stress of domestic management.  Travelling outside of the rush-hour can take stress out the beginning and end of the day.

Part-time work:

For most people, there are times when working full-time causes excessive conflict with other life commitments.  Part-time work should be an attainable option - without loss of benefits or becoming marginalised in the organisation.  Part-time work is particularly beneficial for people with substantial caring commitments, or who are returning to work after looking after young children. 

Jobshare:

Jobshare is a particular type of collective part-time arrangement, where an individual can be assured that the job is being carried out properly by someone else when they are not working.  Organisations should look to part-time work and jobsharing as a means of retaining skilled staff whose skills might otherwise be lost.

Term-time working:

Term-time working is a particularly family-friendly policy, and which is suitable for more people than teachers.  Many people take their holidays, or unpaid leave, or flex strategic absences around school holidays.  It has benefits for both employers and employees to formalise arrangements.

Home-based working:

Working from home has many advantages for people with heavy domestic responsibilities.  In the majority of instances, this is not full-time, but appropriate tasks can be undertaken from home - usually with productivity benefits.  It is almost impossible to work effectively and care for children at the same time - but home based working can make the organisation and management of childcare much easier and less stressful.  It also enables contact with children at crucial times of their day, rather than dashing out of the house as they do, and not being there when they return.

A worker free of parental guilt may be a happier and more motivated worker.  Home-based working combined with time-based flexibility can ensure that an employee is always equipped to get on with some work.

Telecentre working:

Alternatively, if employees have the opportunity to work locally, in a local office or telecentre, this can help them achieve a more balanced lifestyle.  And the local offices or telecentres will also serve the needs of other itinerant workers, and/or bring services closer to customers in a particular location.

Parental leave:

Parental leave may be advantageous at times other than the birth of a new baby.  For a family, paternal leave can be important less for the new born child than for the care of older siblings.  Parental leave by its nature is intended to cope with times of particular stress or change in the family.

Implementing work-life balance:

These are not, of course "magic wand" solutions.  Particular arrangements have to be put in place to ensure 

  • the continuity of work

  • adequate monitoring and supervision 

  • good communications with staff operating flexibly 

  • equitable arrangements for all staff (i.e. not implementing flexible arrangements only for those with families) 

  • protection of existing rights and benefits. 

Superficially most of these working practices appear to benefit the employee and potentially cause problems for the employer.

The point is that, when implemented as part of a holistic approach to new ways of working, improved work-life balance for staff can be delivered alongside tangible business benefits.

Next article: Communicating and managing change

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