Working Towards Better Work-Life Balance


A Q&A with work-life expert Barbara Holmes

As an expert in work-life balance, what do you think is the general state of work-life balance for employees in most organizations? Are most employees experiencing the best situation with regard to work-life balance?

It is very hard to generalize about what is happening in terms of work-life balance. It would be true to say that work-life balance is now well and truly on the radar in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. However, some of the other Asian countries are still struggling to gain traction.

A considerable body of evidence confirms that in Australia and New Zealand, the vast majority of major corporations, public sector and government organizations now accept that they need to have a work-life strategy that is responsive to the needs of their employees. Most of them recognize that flexible work arrangements are a key factor in attracting and retaining staff. Potential employees look for organizations that demonstrate that flexibility is not only possible, but that it is actively supported and practiced at all levels of the organization.

One of the keys to retaining staff is the accessibility of work-life options such as flexible working and assistance with dependant care and benefits, like paid parental leave.

In the Asia/Pacific region, Singapore stands out as the only country to really focus on addressing work-life issues as a government initiative designed to support employers in making necessary changes. Most other countries appear to be slow to change. However, in multinational organizations where the work/life/diversity strategy is driven from the parent company in either the U.S., Europe or Australia, there is considerable motivation to make local changes that are in line with the culture of the business and the country. For example in Singapore, while there are issues concerning child care, many families have grandparents or paid help to assist in the care of children; therefore, the focus tends to be on reducing work hours and increasing the career opportunities for women, especially when they return to work after the birth of a child.

What have the trends been in work-life balance? How has changing technology affected the issue, both positively and negatively?

The real focus in this region is on flexible working. More and more people are looking for greater flexibility in both their work hours and work location. More staff also want to telecommute for at least part of the week—mostly to save in traveling time, but also to enable them to work more efficiently with the assistance of technology.

Globalization is also an issue for employees in multinational companies. This is especially true in Australia and some Asian countries where the different time zones mean that staff who need to be in contact with U.S. or U.K. associates are likely to have to work at midnight or very early in the morning. They report that they find very little consideration for their plight from their overseas colleagues who just don’t understand that the time zones for Los Angeles, Sydney and London are significantly different.

What has your research shown about the importance of providing opportunities for work-life balance for employees? What is the bottom-line incentive for organizations to pursue this?

Managing Work|Life Balance International’s 2007 Work|Life Benchmarking Survey of organizations throughout Australia in the public, private and nonprofit sectors revealed that work-life strategies are delivering a variety of benefits to organizations. Of the 284 organizations that participated in the study, 57 percent indicated that flexible work options have resulted in more effective management of employees. Other findings from the survey attributed to work-life initiatives include:

  • Seventy-five percent of companies indicated an increase in employee motivation, satisfaction and engagement.
  • Sixty-eight percent responded that employees are better able to manage workplace stress.
  • Forty-three percent indicated these programs contributed to a reduction in staff turnover.

In your experience, what are the components that make up a successful work-life balance program? Can you provide examples of some of the best programs?

The most successful strategies (and I talk about strategies rather than programs here) are based on sound, internal research that has identified the specific needs of staff, the business and clients. It focuses on providing options that will empower staff to better manage their work-life responsibilities with help from the organization.

The best strategies also focus on changing the workplace culture and the behavior of leaders and staff so that the organization becomes flexible, responsive and supportive of staff who have work-life issues. These programs should also be supported by a comprehensive communication strategy.

Keys to successful work-life strategies include:

  • Linking the work-life strategy to the overall business strategy.
  • Building the business case for change and using this data to gain commitment from the executive team.
  • Focusing on changing the culture of the organization as well as behaviors, not just a list of programs.
  • Educating managers and leaders at all levels of the organization to understand the importance and relevance of the strategy. And most important, educating them on how to manage issues such as flexible working hours within their teams.
  • Where appropriate, looking more holistically at the redesign of jobs so that flexible work is more accessible and not restricted to specific job groups.
  • Identifying and challenging structural and corporate “rules” that inhibit change, such as a focus on “head count,” rather than profitable teams.
  • Communicating constantly with staff about what is available, and focusing on mutual responsibility between staff and the organization.
  • Monitoring and evaluating the strategy on a regular basis.

Some organizations provide what they think are good work-life balance opportunities that aren’t actually effective. Can you describe some less successful strategies and how to avoid these pitfalls?

Our experience would suggest that it’s not so much the strategies that are not successful, but rather their implementation. This of course assumes that the strategy has been built on sound research and actually reflects the need of the business, its staff and its clients. It also assumes there is a commitment to the strategy from leaders and executives.

We have found that there are a number of reasons why these strategies fail:

  1. They are not meeting the needs of staff.
  2. There is no real commitment to change by the executive team, and it becomes a token exercise.
  3. Staff don’t know about them (i.e. the communication is limited and the electronic version of the dusty bookcase, the intranet, is the sole means of communication).
  4. Midlevel leaders are unable or unwilling to support the strategies.
  5. They are not evaluated and not upgraded or replaced as their value to staff changes.

The key for any company is to focus on flexible work arrangements. The rest will easily follow.