By Sophie Dawson and David Tong, Mercer Human Resource Consulting
Flexible working and promoting a healthy work-life balance are issues that have found themselves perpetually on the HR agenda. A vast amount of research has been published in this area, best practice manuals have been written, and politicians, academics and business leaders alike espouse the value of work-life balance.
A gap between rhetoric and reality
A Mercer/CBI study of UK employers provides some evidence that organisations are putting flexible working policies into practice, with almost all (96%) reporting that they offer at least one flexible working pattern.
Yet, despite this level of interest and support from top managers and politicians, only half (55%) of British workers questioned in Mercer’s subsequent Britain at Work survey indicated that they have the opportunity to work flexibly. This gap between rhetoric and reality is concerning, particularly as over three-quarters of employees consider flexible working an important driver of commitment and motivation at work.
Societal trends would suggest that flexible working is likely to remain on and move up the HR agenda over the coming years. Firstly, the number of women in the workplace has increased substantially over the past half century and continues to rise, and Mercer’s findings confirm that women consider work-life balance a more important motivator than men.
Secondly, over time there has been a change in the trend towards early retirement. In 1975, 95% of 55-65 year olds were working compared to only 60% in 1999. Early retirement is often seen as the opportunity to redress the ‘balance’ and enjoy the ‘life’ part of the equation.
However, early signs show that this trend is unlikely to continue beyond the baby-boom generation. Pension changes and a shrinking younger workforce mean that a person entering employment today could see their working life extend into their late 60s or 70s. This daunting prospect is likely to change attitudes towards work amongst the new generation.
More employees are likely to want to take career breaks to travel, learn new skills, re-train or bring up a family. And, as staff brace themselves to run the longer race, there will be increased expectations and demands for employment practices to accommodate lifestyle choices.
Organisations will need to respond to these emerging societal changes with a reassessment of current flexible working policies and the way they are implemented and supported by line managers.
Work-life balance and flexible working have traditionally been associated with ‘family-friendly’ policies, and this is at the centre of the flexible working legislation that came into force earlier this year. However, flexible working goes beyond family-friendly rights – it is about integrating careers with one’s total lifestyle.
An increasing number of high-performing organisations now appreciate the unique needs of different employee segments. Following their marketing colleagues’ lead, they understand that the priorities of a thirty year-old parent are likely to differ significantly from those of someone nearing retirement, or a twenty year old just entering the workforce.
This recognition has led to a growing trend towards flexible benefits programmes which allow employees to tailor their benefits towards their lifestyle. It is likely that, in time, this ‘flexibility’ will become more broadly defined to include working patterns and hours.
These changing workplace trends are likely to impact line managers the greatest. The HR function will increasingly move away from day-to-day operations to a more strategic role focussed on aligning HR practices with business requirements. So responsibility for implementing flexible working policies will be devolved to management.
But the difficulty is that flexible working involves managing individual cases – the exception to the rule – which many managers feel threatens the smooth operation of their team. Organisations should therefore educate managers about the importance of flexible working as a means of engaging employees and achieving long-term business performance. Without sufficient buy-in from managers, these policies will not receive the support required to make them work effectively.
As the workforce and society continue to change, managers will need to become adept at managing diversity and difference at work, recognising that employees are motivated by different things.
The results of Mercer’s Britain at Work survey show that managers and HR professionals believe their organisation respects diversity more than junior and non-management employees. So perhaps the greater challenge for organisations is to look at whether they really value diversity and whether managers are encouraged and supported to address the different needs and lifestyles of their teams.