While watching the news on TV the other day, I came across a story on the much-talked issue of work-life balance. And inevitably as the reporter started narrating the story, the video footage started showing employees working on laptops, tablets, answering emails on smartphones, working from home through VPN etc. To me, this is the most popular visualization of this issue in mainstream media. But is there more to work-life balance than merely tools and technology?
The issue of work-life balance is indeed important. According to Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study 2012, 48% of workers in Singapore stated that they have been working more hours than normal in the last three years. And about 40% are reporting challenges in taking annual leave or personal time-off in the last few years. Elsewhere, the situation is not much different.
In today’s hyper-connected world, where companies expect an on-demand workforce, stress and a lack of work-life balance can potentially take a toll on worker productivity. The most talked about solution to address this issue is technology. When I talk to companies where employees report dissatisfaction with work-life balance, the response I get from senior leaders is that they already have policies around tele-commuting, smartphones for employees, flexible working hours, availability of video-conferencing through computers etc. These do sound like solutions, but there is something else missing. After all, why are employees still unhappy with their work-life balance?
The tools described above are important, but without the right enabling culture in the organisation, they are quite meaningless. For instance, an employee might have video-conferencing capabilities on the laptop, but if her manager expects in-person face time, the utility of the tool just goes to zero. A company might offer flexible working hours, saying that an employee can choose any 8 hours of working between 8am to 8pm. But, if the employee just ends up starting early and finishing early, the policy doesn’t work. A company might offer smartphones to its employees, but if the culture turns into one of “instant response” on routine issues after working hours or on weekdays, the purpose is defeated.
So, apart from putting these technology-driven solutions in place, companies will have to think about building the mindset or culture for work-life balance. This is the foundation on which an effective work-life balance program can be built. So, how do we do this? There are many ways, but I would like to touch upon three areas:
Leading by Example: One of the potential reasons why employees are not able to take full advantage of such programs is that they don’t see their leaders & managers supporting these programs. Leaders and managers need to set the tone by leveraging the work-life balance programs themselves. After all, if an employee never sees her leader tele-commuting, she might construe that it is not an acceptable practice.
Team-Oriented Goals: One of the challenges in implementation initiative like flexible working hours is the question “So how will the work get done when this person is away?”. One way to address this is to set team-based goals as a way to nudge employees to stand-in for one another. This helps to make team members responsible for each others’ work-life balance and still be accountable for the team goals.
Story-telling: Do we celebrate high-performing employees who enjoy a great work-life balance? Or are we rather talking hush-hush about them? One way to build the work-life balance mindset or culture is to share stories about employees who deliver great performance, and still manage to strike a balance.
All of the above help carry the message that “It is OK to do so.” These can help create widespread understanding of the work-life balance programs, an appreciation of how best to balance performance and persona life and help employees model their behaviours based on their leaders & managers.
What has been your experience? How are you addressing the issue of work-life balance in your company?