The “Balance” bit of Work Life Balance has always been a term which has eluded me. A bit like peoples perfect Instagram shots, my life never quite seems like that. Companies happily tweeting about great new work/life policies, with this smiling staff adding shots to their LinkedIn of what a great morning coffee their having whilst working from home this morning. Meanwhile I’m stuck somewhere on public transport, late for a meeting and wondering if I remembered to pack the kids lunch today.
As an employer, its similar – I like to think that we’ve developed some pretty good flexible working practices. We actively encourage staff to work from home when they want, understand the benefits this brings in terms of staff motivation, retention and productivity whilst also having genuine staff who respect the autonomy that they have. I would be lying however if I didn’t turn around and wonder as a manager where someone is/what they were doing every now and then when they do work from home; we have moments where everyone is working really hard to finish a project/short-list and putting in more than their allocated hours; and we have the subsequent lull in the office where people are here but really should be at home. None of which are perfect.
It finally dawned on me that whilst everyone else maybe in perfect Zen-like balance, we are more in a state of dynamic balance – affected by numerous outside forces (clients requirements, project deadlines, personal circumstances) and constantly doing our best to compensate against these into some sort of stability.
So from a highly imperfect, permanently fluctuating soapbox, here are our thoughts about work-life balance.
It favours the little guy
Finally, something in business which favours small businesses over big business! From purchasing power, market intelligence through to branding, small business is usually fighting to get on a level playing field. Not so with Flexible working policies – in our experience the larger the company, the more rigid policies must be to ensure fairness across the organisation and stop the policies from being abused. As a small company its far easier to tailor policies to an individual’s requirements which can be key in attracting talent to an organisation.
There is no doubt that Planned Resources wouldn’t have attracted the people we have working for us currently if we weren’t able to offer an attractive flexible working policy
It means different things to different people
As Planned Resources has grown, most people we’ve employed have wanted some form of flexibility. The form of that flexibility has varied from each person, ranging from:
- a parent, wanting a very structured part-time arrangement so that she can switch from work to personal life without the worry of what she’s missing at work
- A consultant undertaking further study who needed a combination of solid blocks of study time, days off to attend classes and study time around exams.
- A night-owl, who struggled with her alarm clock in the morning but would happily log on in the evening to write adverts and complete shortlists.
- Me – a “hare” rather than a “tortoise” who will put in long hours/effort to complete a task but will then flop for a week when finished.
- Others who just want the option of being able to work from home, to either get work out the door without corporate distractions through to people needing to be at home for furniture deliveries.
Trying to write a specific process to govern all these arrangements is difficult and policies/procedures need to be around the intent as opposed to being prescriptive which will invariably not specifically fit an individual’s requirements.
There’s a bit of give and take
An employer can’t count every minute an employee is out the office and exact reciprocal time, or a decrease in pro-rata wage as compensation. It will lead to a tit for tat recording of time/tasks which will be counter-productive and cause the employee to see their employer as inflexible.
Equally employees need to realise that flexibility is only going to be sustainable when its not going to be taken advantage of. This may mean staying back an extra 5 minutes to finish something off outside of “standard hours” every now and then.
It’s not just for parents
Years ago, when I started work part-time was strictly for parents, (usually mums) needing flexibility, anything outside of this was odd. Today, quite frankly as long as they maintain the agreed outputs, its none of the employer’s business as to why the employee wants flexible working.
Fairness for All
Whilst people have different requirements and different ways of using flexibility, its important that everyone has access to the same entitlements should they wish, and that these arrangements are transparent to everyone.
We’ve had situations here, where some employees have exploited the system for their own benefit, and whilst this has annoyed me, the sense of unfairness it engendered among other team members was more vehement that my own reaction.
I learned from this to
- Where possible be open about everyone’s individual requirements.
- Highlight where people have worked above/beyond the norm
- Hold people accountable for productivity.
The biggest fear an employer has will be a loss in service, which potentially leads to losing clients, making the whole flexibility option unsustainable. This isn’t what either the employer or employee want, so for it to work its best to come up with some parameters around what good service delivery looks like. This can include the speed with which clients are responded to, deadlines for projects and other factors. These parameters need to be realistic, reasonable and agreed to by both parties as something that fits in with being able to service the client and achieve the flexibility the employee is looking for.
You need motivated staff
A comment from a speaker at a recent event I attended rings very true, “the people who will slack off when working from home, will also slack off at work” – When implementing a flexible work policy, you need to be comfy that you have staff who are motivated to do a good job/service a client – If you don’t have this in place, it may not be the right time for you to implement the policy (if it doesn’t work, you’re unlikely to try again!), or at least ensure that you have processes in-place to monitor how things are tracking and stop things from going sideways (agreed targets/response times), potentially look at part-time hours as opposed to flexible working (gives you more control and makes things office based, but no expectation to do work outside of core hours).
Trust your employees
In the office, I must admit to occasionally hovering over consultants to ensure deadlines are met. My instinct when they are out of the office is to double up on this, chasing them for updates at times that are convenient to me in case consultants aren’t scurrying around trying to meet the deadline at the earliest opportunity. I have to remind myself that they probably aren’t scurrying around, and that quite frankly the whole idea of flexibility is that they aren’t doing this! I’ve learned to be available to provide advice if instigated by the employee’s, but beyond this manage conversations at set agreed timelines to update on projects and only chase them on the essentials so that employees have space.
Understanding that flexibility goes both ways is important, but equally as important is respecting the other parties’ boundaries. Employees will have sacred times that they aren’t available to take calls from their boss, regardless of what the work emergency is. In our experience, these emergencies are never so cataclysmic that they can’t be solved by other people in the office, or keep for a couple of hours.
Employers/Employees may want to set up sacred times that are no-go areas for contact. This can be via a traditional “part-time” arrangement where employees are expected to be present at work at set-times but have no expectations on them outside of work. Or alternately have a flexible arrangement, but within this have sacred times where the employee (who may be at class, with kids, or even down the gym) isn’t expected to take any calls. Whilst this boundary may seem harsh to an employer, there is no difference to this and calling a 9-5 employee at 10pm to answer a work query – both are invasive of the employees personal time and space.
For this to work both parties need to agree with what times are sacred. With the employer respecting these boundaries and the employee keeping these times to purely essential events where possible (whilst there maybe a tendency for the employee to want to maximise these times, the more times they put in as sacred, the more demanding the employer will have to be on other times to compensate) – effectively moving the role away from a flexible role into a more part-time role.
Have an Understudy
Another way to alleviate a boss’s fear of the world falling apart if someone isn’t physically present in the office is to give them assurances that there are people/processes in place to handle emergencies in an employee’s absence. This shouldn’t mean that an employee absolves themselves of all responsibility and manipulates all work into times they are away from the office as this wouldn’t be fair to their peers (see point 5). This can be done by:
1 – Having some cross-over in clients/projects so that there is an alternate person who has IP of the project or client relationship
2- Brief handover notes, indicating any calls that may come in or need resolving in an employees absence.
3 – Good project notes so people can follow where a project is up to, and if a person is working remotely ensure that work is performed on a shared drive as opposed to being saved on individual desktops so others can access if required.
Be mindful of middle management
Flexibility is great. Senior Management get to tout their cutting-edge HR policies, tick it oft, tweet it and move on. Employees lap up this newfound freedom and enjoy not being in the office 9-5. Someone however needs to manage the extra demands of running the program (even just fielding phone calls in everyone’s absence), as well as servicing clients and having to worry about making sure service delivery, deadlines and quality to clients isn’t affected by the new processes. If not watched carefully this can mean that middle management get all the headaches as not of the perks as they worry about the delivery and potentially work more hours to compensate for this new flexibility.
Never perfect is perfect
Always compensating for outside forces and having a state of dynamic balance, is, in our opinion as close as your going to get with work life balance. There will always be events in both work and life that will make one side take priority over the other, and generally this is a sign of someone living a full life. In work, being busy and challenged typically trumps being slow and bored, and outside work, having interests, family commitments and personal goals are what makes your life interesting.
At a defined moment in time, the balance is likely to be skewed one way or the other, but as long as things balance out over time and it gives the capacity to incorporate additional things into life that we wouldn’t achieve in a traditional 9-5 role, then we see this as a positive step.
In Our Opinion
Flexibility is a great tool for employers in keeping and motivating staff. It requires both parties understanding the benefits and pitfalls of implementing a policy and putting in place agreements to ensure that works for both, with both parties respecting the boundaries of the other party, whilst also understanding that there may be times that they have to offer flexibility back to the other party in return.
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