I remember when a previous boss of mine called out my responding to emails after 10pm at night saying work-life balance was an important principle of his – then inviting me to a 7am meeting. It didn’t take me long to realise that it was his specific brand of work-life balance that was his guiding principle. And I’m not a morning person!
Work-life balance cannot be imposed. What we all seek from work and life varies. My balance will be different to yours. What an organisation needs to do, however, is ensure it is creating an environment of choice, where people can still meet the demands of their role but in a way that leaves them feeling satisfied, not compromised. It also requires role model behaviour. And that means exploding some of the myths – that work-life balance is just flexible working and has more appeal to women, mums, or, more specifically, new mums.
So how do you go about creating that environment? Work-life balance – or work-life effectiveness as the Harvard Business Review recently referred to it – sits at the heart of a number of core HR policies – flexible or intelligent working, wellbeing and training. These policies need to be aligned if they’re to support people’s different needs and their ability to choose. There also needs to be senior level sponsorship and consistency within the informal culture of the firm. We all know that informal culture eats formal policies for breakfast. Any firm that extols the virtues of work-life effectiveness then proceeds to reward or promote those who are seen to have no balance is going to, well, you get the picture. At the end of the day it’s not what you say, it’s what you do.
At KPMG, we support work-life effectiveness through intelligent working. Every single one of our roles is advertised as eligible for intelligent working. Like most organisations we have a range of formal arrangements – glide time (flexibility in start and finish time), home working, part-time working, role sharing, annualised days. And of course any arrangement is considered. If we don’t already have it formalised, truth is we probably haven’t thought of it.
Next the wellbeing strategy needs to be aligned. Our wellbeing strategy has four key pillars – preventative health, support to working families, mental wellbeing and financial wellbeing. Whereas previously much of wellbeing reactively responded to health and welfare issues, the focus these days is around proactivity and prevention. And again, it has to be individually tailored and seen in a positive light. Whilst occupational health might once have been seen as an ‘organisational stick’ to get people back to work, it is now typically seen as a positive intervention, actively owned by the employees themselves. I am seeing people increasingly self-referring because they themselves want the combination of health and work-related advice only an occupational health referral can give. To facilitate this at KPMG, we’ve also introduced rehabilitation services – a telephone service for all employees who are absent or struggling to remain in work for health reasons – the service provides both clinical and non-clinical support to the employee and makes recommendations back to their manager.
For many people their work-life effectiveness is intimately linked to their families. How many people feel they are compromising on their family responsibilities – not seeing enough of their children or their parents and knowing they won’t have that chance again? Hence shared parental leave policies, emergency dependent care that includes parental care, membership of organisations such as Carers UK and extension of benefits to the immediate family are essential.
And then there’s training. Leadership development needs to ensure team leaders are getting the best out of their teams. That means supporting team members’ individual aspirations and what work- life effectiveness means to them. It also means accepting that we are all different. The best team leaders understand this – they’re genuinely inclusive leaders. They know people are most engaged and go the extra mile when the focus is upon the quality of their outputs, not the quantity of their inputs such as working to a set pattern each and every day. Or working the pattern their senior leader works each day. This ethos needs to be instilled in manager and leadership training.
And this of course leads into the firm’s strategy around work-life effectiveness. It’s not an end in itself. It isn’t just some HR policy. Research shows that those organisations which indeed focus on outputs, not inputs, tend to outperform in their sector. Just saying ‘we respect work-life balance’ pays lip service. Instead the firm should talk about how work-life effectiveness supports its strategy, how the organisation benefits, how its senior leaders are role models in that field.
Which leads onto role modelling. Who are the role models of work- life effectiveness in your organisation? Are those who work more hours progressing at a faster rate than those who work smarter, not harder? If you asked your people, what would they say about the importance of presenteeism? Of responding to emails no matter what time of day or night they are sent?
At KPMG we ran some focus groups around work-life effectiveness. One of the key points that emerged was that whilst many senior males had informal arrangements – such as leaving early on set days to bath their kids – they were much less open about it than their female counterparts. We encouraged those men – typically marking this time in their calendar as ‘private’ – to be much more open. This is role model behaviour. If you’re quiet about it, mark it as private, you’re sending a clear message. If you’re open, you’re making it clear you too have a life outside of work as well – a balance you want respected.
The spotlight on work-life effectiveness is only going to increase. Millennials and post-Millennials often want to work on their own terms. And why not? They know when they are most effective and want the control to determine how they work. And isn’t that what this is really all about? Whilst organisations know what they want from their employees, those firms that want to outperform are going to have to relax on the how and leave that to those who have always known best – their staff.