Watching Twitter activity from this year’s CIPD Conference, a comment from @katie_jacobs caught my eye: “the days of offering the same benefits for everyone are over. It's time to treat ppl as individuals”. It’s this recognition that’s partly driven the growth in popularity of flexible benefits in recent years. So it seems incongruous to me that we can contemplate customised benefits while maintaining a “one size fits all” approach to jobs. All the more so when the technology now exists for us to redesign those jobs to harness diverse skills and talents more effectively while supporting more balanced lives.

HR practitioners in many organisations are likely to argue their flexible working policies are designed to do just that. The problem is that often these policies remain inflexible in their application and are likely, as a consequence, to increase rather than reduce stress. At the same time, entrenched and outdated working practices continue to support corporate cultures that deny the possibility of combining flexible arrangements with a senior career. We still have a long way to go before we truly achieve the sort of customised working arrangements that enable both productivity and work-life balance.

Surveys routinely suggest work-life balance is one of the top concerns for both employees and HR specialists; while the evidence that individuals often value flexibility above pay rises continues to mount. (Amid continuing economic turbulence, it’s good to know this low cost employee engagement tool exists.) Despite all this evidence, and considerable focus on organisational change, most employers have been slow to accommodate truly flexible working practices. Research by the CIPD last year and the Workplace Employment Relations Survey in 2011 both showed that despite the existence of corporate policies offering a range of flexible working options, the biggest take up by far is for part-time (reduced) hours. This is hardly flexibility when it’s merely squeezing those employees unable to balance outside responsibilities with stringent full-time hours into traditional workplace arrangements.

What does it take to truly customise full-time jobs so that jobholders can both be productive and feel they are living a more balanced life? Four steps, in my experience:

  1. Confirm the key tasks for which the post holder has been hired and what (if anything) is getting in the way of their successful completion. While technology has been developing rapidly over the last two decades, working practices have often failed to keep up. So, for example, the overloaded inbox is a common complaint as well as a frequent barrier to effective working.
  2. Identify when, where and how these key tasks need to be carried out. In most jobs some deliverables will be time critical while others must be carried out at a specific location (typically the workplace). Critically reviewing these two aspects can suggest where the flexibility in the job lies.
  3. Pinpoint the job holder’s preferences for managing the work-life interface. In the last 30 years social scientists (including psychologists) have generated an enormous amount of research into work-life balance. One key conclusion is that people tend to have a preference over whether they keep the two separate or integrate them (and how they manage that). Working in circumstances which go against their preferences is likely to make them unhappy, stressed and disengaged.
  4. Finally, identify the key stakeholders that need to be on board for the new working arrangement to succeed. This might include customers or clients, other people inside the employing organisation and people in the job holder’s wider network.

Having worked through those four steps, the job-holder is more likely to craft a job which meets both employer expectations and personal work-life balance goals. The challenge now is to identify and develop the key skills she will need to ensure the new way of working is a success.