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Work-life balance: A little flexibility goes a long way

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Work-life balanceWork Wise Week 2008 is being launched today, Thursday 15 May, with ‘National Work from Home Day’. Annie Hayes finds out whether the work-life balance dream can be a reality.


Flexible working today

Teleconferencing in the garden, brainstorming in the bath, report writing from under the duvet – it’s the stuff of dreams and something that the 5 million or so workers are trying out for themselves today (15 May), as part of National Work from Home Day.

This is not the first time, either, that work-life balance is hitting the headlines: balancing our working life with our one at home is also supported by legislation.

Currently parents of children aged under six, and 18 if disabled, are entitled to ask their employees for flexible working options and further extensions are afoot. A government-commissioned review by Imelda Walsh, the HR director for Sainsburys, has recommended raising the age limit to 16 years-old.

Work-life balance champions BT have set the tone. Dennis Gissing, head of diversity practice for the firm, says that out of a UK workforce of 92,000, as many as 14,500 work from home full-time, and more than 5,000 also work part-time.

Opposition is also eroding from the traditional lobby groups. A recent survey suggests that UK small- and medium-sized businesses are embracing flexible working practices, with 74% saying they have introduced flexible working and approximately half stating that they believe the government’s plans to extend flexible working to parents of older children is a good idea.

Policies and strategies

Mary Mercer, principal consultant for the Institute For Employment Studies, says that it’s the small differences that have the biggest impact: “lots of people think flexible working has to be about big changes but that’s not true”.

“Lots of people think flexible working has to be about big changes but that’s not true.”

Mary Mercer, Institute For Employment Studies

Indeed there are endless possibilities, from compressed hours, nine-day fortnights, flexible start and leave times, term-time working, part-time working, job shares, salary sacrifice for extended holiday, home working and much, much more.

Jonathan Swan, policy and research manager for Working Families, says that it’s no good just having policies in place, however: “many companies need to close the gap between the rhetoric and take-up”. In reality, Swan says that flexible working is still concentrated in the traditional groups – working parents, particularly mums and, doesn’t spread much wider.

BT might just be the exception to the rule, however. Gissing says that the company is branching out to jobs that were previously thought of as not being appropriate for flexible working such as in their call centres, where virtual pilot programmes are proving successful. Older workers are also requesting flexible working: “since the age legislation came into place we found that 80% of older workers (60 plus) wanted to work on,” he remarks.

It’s clear to see what’s in it for workers. In a survey by Mother@Work, UK dads said that flexible working would make the most difference to family life in the first year after a child’s birth. But all workers, including the childless and older, have their reasons – more time for hobbies, less time commuting, reduced stress – the list is endless and not exhaustive, but it begs the question what are the employers getting out of it?

What’s in it for employers?

Mercer remarks that one of the key lures is getting people back to work, particularly maternity returners; a staggering 99% of women go back to work following maternity leave at BT. Gissing has also calculated that the company would have lost around 1,000 workers if it wasn’t flexible on work locations: “if someone’s partner moves job and they move home we consider re-locating them to another site”.

Retention is a major attraction, particularly given the costs of recruiting. Gissing explains that to train a line engineer costs £28,000 – money which is down the drain if they move on after a year. Such is the pull of being able to control your work/life balance that parents in the Mother@Work survey ranked ‘working away from the office’ as a top benefit that mums would like to receive from a job (54%), polling above a pension (44%), and an annual bonus or health insurance (both 36%).

Productivity is another major advantage. Swan says that Working Families has just finished a two-year research programme with the Cranfield School of Management in which they found conclusively that performance scored highly where flexible working is a feature: “it’s about having an adult relationship between employee and employer”.

In the virtual call centre pilots, BT reports call handling to have increased by 20% whilst absenteeism for home workers is 20% below the average within the company. It’s impressive. Added to this, says Gissing, is improved job satisfaction. According to their attitude survey, levels improve amongst home workers. The Mother@Work survey of small businesses produced similar results finding that employee satisfaction was 66% for those with flexible working options.

Costs also play their part. Cutting down the commute is a big draw for the environmentally conscious and Gissing tells me that employees have saved as much as £10m. Dispensing with fixed desk space also reduces the number of offices that are required. BT has saved a staggering £500m on this alone. Gissing expresses, that downsizing property requirements isn’t a straight A to Z equation, however: “we’ve had to evolve and that means accommodating hot desks for visitors, staff that come in to work for meetings only – we’re a fluid population.”

Challenges

“There are also the isolation issues; we insist that people attend team meetings and events to keep in the loop.”

Dennis Gissing, BT

Inevitably there are challenges. Mercer remarks that trust is a major issue: “a lot of bosses will listen in on their calls to home workers to check whether the TV is on or not”. It’s a problem that is very real. Mercer says the key is having robust performance management strategies in place. A recent survey by BT, showed that 88% of small business managers have no formal training on managing home workers, even though three quarters of them already offer some form of home working for staff. Gissing says it becomes easier where the ground-rules are clear and most people, he says, want to do a good job and when reasonable objectives are set it helps.

Technology is a further challenge, says Gissing, who explains that failure to use it properly can cause problems: “there are also the isolation issues; we insist that people attend team meetings and events to keep in the loop”.

It’s a point that Mercer agrees with, she says a very real danger can be compromising on your career: “some people’s potential can be missed, if it is felt they are less committed there is a risk”. Mercer suggests more open processes, giving staff the confidence that they can have good careers if they work flexibly and supporting line managers.

Gissing adds that flexible working may not be appropriate for workers early on in their careers where monitoring and lots of interaction is required or those that change jobs and need orientation but adds that it’s often about ‘natural selection’.

The future

The legislation is in place and looks set to encourage more workers to balance their lives between home and work whilst encouraging more parents to return to work after starting their families. It’s not just big business either that is working more flexibly but smaller businesses that are taking advantage of their ability to be less formal.

Gissing believes that the future is bright and looks forward to flexible working evolving beyond the core traditional groups – it doesn’t have to all be about starting a family or fancying Friday afternoons off: “a member of my team recently took four months off because he wanted to go to New Zealand for an extended holiday,” says Gissing. With workers expected to work longer into old age – a little flexibility doesn’t seem too much to ask.

One Response

  1. Work-Life balance
    Interesting this article, as we have just introduced similar legislation in New Zealand. Only a month old so a little early to comment on the take-up or otherwise. Our comment all the while, as employer advocates, is that all good employers are already into at least listening to requests from their staff, so we are waiting to see if legislation will work to the benefit of both parties my making employers listen.

    While the figures for BT look impressive, is it reasonable to suggest they are not maybe the best example to use to get employers thinking along these lines? I imagine the nature of their work lends itself much more readily to working from home; more so than the engineer just down the road from me here in Central Otago, who has 5 people working for him, and they are all welders/metalworkers. Add to that 3 of them are volunteer members of the local fire brigade, who happen to also be what we refer to as “first response”………in other words they also get called to motor accidents and other similar like heart attacks etc. In some respects that is pretty good flexibility for such a small employer, yet the legislation here does not take that into account. The statistics for him are that 60% of his staff have flexibility. BT I see have 5.5% working short hours.

    So, has there been similar research activity among small employers, so we get a balance and not just the largest employers who one might suggest have the exonomic ability to do things others cannot? Any comment in this area most appreciated. Cheers.

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