I’m going to be upfront from the start, in that I have a huge issue with the phrase “work/life balance”. To me, its connotations are both incorrect and unhelpful. By differentiating “work” and “life”, we have a starting point which suggests that working is mutually exclusive to living, and that every moment we spend at work is a moment which prevents us from getting to all other elements of our life.
The reality is that the lines between “work” and “life” are more blurred than ever. The expectations of the workforce have changed. At one time, it was understood that you would work between your contracted hours, and do no more. 5pm would come and employees across the country would down tools and go home to the rest of their life.
The rise of technology
Technology has changed all of that. The expectations of employers have changed. As the use of smartphones and remote systems access has become more widespread, so too has the expectation that employees will, more and more, become available and accessible outside of their contracted hours.
For both employers and employees, this move away from the fixed 9 to 5 offers both opportunities and risks. If we are not careful, the danger is that we enable an “always on” culture, which can cause burn out for employees and resulting drops in productivity for organisations.
When embraced appropriately, though, more of an “anytime, anywhere” way of working offers huge benefits for both parties. By flexing the working hours of their employees, organisations can provide cover far beyond the traditional 9-5, supporting partners and clients in other time zones and facilitating a round the clock service.
For employees, this new way of working has the potential to offer a degree of flexibility which would simply never have been available before technology became so accessible and widespread. I would hypothesise that, within the next 10 years, fixed working hours will become a thing of the past. A recent study by CV Library showed that 47% of all respondents cited flexible working as their most desired workplace benefit. I predict that the most switched on organisations will fairly quickly move to an approach whereby working hours and location are agreed on a case by case basis at the job offer stage. The sense of control over working pattern is a key motivator to the employee; for the employer, it allows them to attract the best talent, retain that talent, and expand their provision of services and availability. A win win all round.
To come back then, to that phrase: work/life balance. For me personally, work is an important component of my life, a component that I’m very proud of, and very much enjoy. While I don’t believe many of us are defined solely by our job, it’s likely that it is still a major contributor to what makes us us. And, to that end, I’m most productive when I’m not forced to differentiate it from the rest of my life.
The fact is that, much as work life doesn’t automatically switch off when the clock hits 5pm, nor do our home lives when we enter the office for the day. Most of us juggle working with family life, other responsibilities, life administration, etc. It is unreasonable, and unrealistic, to expect all of these responsibilities to melt away the moment an employee walks through the door. The very best employers have recognised this, and are encouraging the development of a culture which supports both their employees’ work and home lives.
From personal experience
From my personal experience, I would say Benefex have this spot on. Talking from a position of employee, as opposed to my role as Chief People Officer, I can say that Benefex have allowed me to integrate my work and home lives almost seamlessly. While I work full time, I have non-standard working hours which enable me to drop off and pick up my two young children at before and after school club. Also, critically for me, I’m able to be there when they need me.
Last week my daughter had an accident and was rushed into hospital. After the initial drama of the phone calls, the drive to hospital and the relief that she would be okay, my husband turned to me and asked if work would have a problem with the fact I had unexpectedly needed to leave the office to be with her. I turned to him in surprise. ‘No, of course not. They know that there are times when home needs to take priority over work.’ – in fact, I’d had a text from Matt, our CEO, when I’d informed him of what had happened, telling me exactly that!
Similarly, on the flip side, the requirements of work don’t always stop the moment we walk out of the office. The other evening something had happened which necessitated me making a number of work related phone calls over the course of a couple of hours. Did I mind? Of course not. Because for me, the flexibility has always been two-way, and I’m therefore fortunate enough to have been able to achieve a truly effective work and life integration.
Work isn’t a separate entity to my life; it’s a very important component of it. And, in my view, as employers and senior stakeholders, we shouldn’t be trying to help our employees achieve a work/life balance. We should be nurturing and developing a culture which promotes the concept of true work and life integration, a culture where employees are encouraged and supported to manage their responsibilities both in and out of work. By doing so, we increase employee loyalty, engagement, and overall business productivity. And that, surely, has got to be a competitive advantage worth changing for.