the concept of work-life balance a reality or just hype? HR professionals aired
their views at a round-table discussion. Jane Lewis reports
Finding the right balance between work and home life is often dismissed as
an HR obsession that generates hours of discussion and miles of newsprint, but
achieves very little actual impact.
Yet, as revealed in this round-table discussion, organised by Roffey Park in
association with Personnel Today, the issue encapsulates many of the wider
social and economic trends – particularly the blurring of boundaries between
the home and work environments – that are now shaping modern management
Several panellists regard the adoption of more freedom of choice for
employees as a kind of watershed between old-style authoritarianism, and a new
style of ‘adult’ management, based on trust and personal responsibility. They
were also able to demonstrate sound business cases for what greater flexibility
had achieved in their organisations.
But the issue still has the power to provoke division – some members of the
panel were more confident than others about the ability of employees to adapt
to such a system. There were also differing opinions about the role legislation
should play in encouraging greater uptake.
But underlying the whole discussion was the troubling, wider question, of
whether an organisation’s work-life policy – however deeply engrained in company
culture – would be the first thing sacrificed when the chill winds of economic
downturn begin to blow.
What is work-life balance?
The panel agreed the most important point is that you cannot impose a single
definition of the right work-life balance on any organisation. The whole raison
d’etre of the concept, is that people perform best when allowed to strike their
own balance, fine-tuning their work commitments with those of their wider
Thus, although the work-life debate should certainly be welcomed as an
antidote to the long-hours culture – in which, as John Sparkes, HR director at
the Generics Group points out, "the only way to be successful is to work
50, 60 or 70 hours a week" – there is a danger that in seeking to
liberate, we only enchain ourselves in a different way.
But not all the panellists agreed with Tony Smith of Scottish &
Newcastle’s analysis, that "people become less effective" when they
work long hours. For some, the intensity is part of the excitement of the job.
As Christine Crewe from the University of Surrey points out, there are some
staff who just want "to work and work and work".
Indeed, too much emphasis on avoiding a long-hours culture, could mean
swinging the pendulum too far the other way and Asda’s head of colleague
relations, Marie Gill, warns against discouraging high-flyers "who want to
get to the top of the tree by working above and beyond what is required to get
there". While people should be empowered to choose the momentum of their
own careers, she says, it is a fact of business life that "those who work
longer hours and put in twice the effort, will get there quicker".
The panel agreed that age is a critical factor in any assessment of
work-life balance. "The balance changes as you go through different stages
of your life," says HR consultant, Wanda Bridge. "Fifteen years ago,
I was happy to work 60 hours a week, but nowÉ" Age brings greater focus,
she says. "Once you’ve established your career, you get to the stage where
you don’t want to do it all the time."
There appears to be a tacit understanding that while junior staff feel the
pressure to work long hours to get on, more experienced staff have earned the
luxury of a more measured outlook. This may be because they have ‘the
authority’ to insist on better hours, says Bridge.
But perhaps senior people have also learned to use their time more
effectively. Indeed, says Sparkes, giving directors the space to fulfil outside
interests enables them "to produce some very creative work".
Moreover, encouraging different kinds of experiences only adds to the strength
and diversity of the organisation.
How do you get work-life balance within your organisation?
Although the panel agreed with Crewe, that the "strength of the
manager" is critical when it comes to driving reform, the team at Asda
stressed that the real impetus has to come from the ground.
"It comes down to the individual," says colleague relations
manager, Lee Redman. "You need to know what you want outside work and be able
to manage yourself. You need to know your personal objectives."
When Asda’s management introduced its family-friendly schemes, Gill adds:
"We didn’t make anything up. It was our people who told us what they
The real benefit of these new shift patterns, is that they encourage staff
to be ‘upfront’ about the time off they need. Instead of ‘taking a sickie’
because a manager might refuse a request, all they have to do is arrange a
The real point, she says, is that "you need to develop a
community", and that means knowing what people do outside work, and
helping them to do it. "It is about blurring the boundaries between home
When it comes to selling the benefits of improved work-life balance to
senior management, it is easy to run up against a brick wall, says Smith.
"People will say, ‘that’s a great idea’, but they’ll baulk at the
perceived cost, or the fact this kind of working is not traditional to their
The only way to "break this circle", is to prove the business
case. Fortunately, in most companies the business cases are strong. At Asda,
the path towards greater flexibility was considerably eased once managers
proved it reduced staff turnover and absence, and improved productivity.
"We’ve got the lowest sickness and absence record in the
industry," says Gill.
How important is communicating the policy?
The short answer is, ‘very’. According to Gill, the secret of the scheme’s
success lay in marketing the idea and communicating it to the organisation. Staff
needed to know they had "permission" from the top to manage their own
time, and that taking unpaid leave was their right.
"It is the management population that present the most
challenges," says Gill. Now that stores are open 24/7, one of her greatest
challenges is persuading managers to switch off.
"It is hard for them to not phone in and check that everything is OK.
But they learn to work with that," she says.
Communication is also a critical component in heading off clashes when
different groups are working different hours. Bridge, who has considerable
experience in the airline industry, says that considerable resentment developed
at British Airways when one group perceived another to be "sitting around
doing nothing and drinking coffee all day". The problem was, the company
hadn’t explained the policy properly across the whole organisation.
Establishing management by trust
Critical to the success of any work-life scheme is the underlying management
philosophy that drives it. Nick Candler, HR and finance director of Allied
Domecq, sees the work-life movement as a sign that "old style management
is being phased out" in all but a few industries.
"We come at this from a totally different angle," he says.
"We don’t define people by the number of hours they work, we define them
by what they are expected to achieve. We see work-life balance as giving people
the autonomy to make choices about how they achieve their goals."
Candler believes it is all about giving people the ‘adult’ freedom to take
responsibility for their own lives. But this is no soft option: the quid pro
quo for greater flexibility, is proven achievement.
"We will give you the freedom to choose how you achieve [your goals],
but the bottom line is that you must achieve them," says Candler. "If
you don’t, you can’t remain in the organisation. That is the contract, one of
Nonetheless, vigilance is still needed, says John Sparkes – particularly
when it comes to handling younger employees.
"If you are too lenient people can take advantage," he says.
"Graduates come and talk about work-life balance, but they tend to forget
the ‘work’ bit. Sometimes they need reminding why they are being paid."
How should work-life schemes be monitored and measured? Wanda Bridge’s
suggestion that there is a role for legislation here was not taken up with any
great enthusiasm by the rest of the panel.
Most agreed with her point that legislation tends to be reactive, following
things people are already doing in their organisations. Besides, undue emphasis
on legislation and bureaucracy would threaten the very flexibility that
work-like schemes aim to introduce. Rather than "sweeping across
everyone", says Sparkes, "the legislation should be there as back-up
to give people an avenue for making a complaint."
Taking the plunge
So, how do you go about transforming an organisation in line with the new
model? The logical first step, says Smith of Scottish & Newcastle, is a
pilot project – particularly when you’re attempting to change a business where
60-80 hour weeks are the norm and tightly controlled from the top. "But we
thought, if we don’t try it, how will we know if it works?"
Like Asda, Scottish & Newcastle found the most difficult group to tackle
were managers, often working "horrendous" hours, "doing everything
from opening up to the cleaning", often working until 1am. Their emphasis
was all wrong.
"Ask a manager to name the most important part of his business, wages
would be first and stock second. Sales were a distant third." Clearly,
managers needed to spend more time training staff. But when someone is working
80 hours a week, Smith says "it is hardly surprising that you get a poke
in the eye" if you ask them why they aren’t doing more training.
He found the changes needed were not huge. If managers spent less time
behind the bar and more time developing staff, it would have "a dramatic
effect". The only way to achieve it was by establishing a culture where it
was OK to say, ‘I actually work too many hours, and cannot cope with it’. His
conclusion is the same as Candler’s: "People respond to being
What about costs?
This remains a moot point. Smith insists that in 70 per cent of Scottish
& Newcastle’s schemes there was no additional cost, because managers became
more focused and learned to delegate more effectively. Indeed, he says, "I
can show you sales profit and customer service stories that you didn’t think
Other panellists pointed out this has not always been the case. Sparkes
says: "You can get to a point where you pile on the benefits and make a
short term gain, [yet] three to four years later, you find yourself completely
eating your words."
He cites the example of the banking industry, which, in the 1980s and ’90s,
led the charge for family-friendly policies and career breaks. "Three
years later, it was shedding half its workforce." No-one had thought
through the consequence of changes – however beneficial in the short-term – to
the longer term macro-economy and the structure of the industry.
Is work-life balance here to stay?
Ultimately, says Wanda Bridge, it depends on the type of business you are in
and the kind of people you employ.
"There is a certain type of person who responds well to being trusted –
they tend to be self-motivated people who want to do well. But there are a lot
of people out there who need to be told what to do, and they would find it
absolutely terrifying. Some people like routine; they like to know where they
are in black and white. Flexibility doesn’t fit in with everybody’s
But the general consensus was behind Marie Gill’s view, that "the idea
of managing yourself is becoming more and more important". The driving
force for these newly ‘adult’ bargains between employer and employee, suggests
Nick Candler, is widespread change in the workplace. "People are no longer
spending their whole adult lives with one employer."
New relationships require a different kind of psychological contract.
Moreover, the evidence suggests the new generation coming on stream perceives a
degree of flexibility in their working and private lives as a matter of right.
"Graduates are now saying, ‘I want a proper job, but I want my social life
as well’," says Bridges.
How long this new ‘cultural confidence’ will last is a matter for
conjecture. Certainly people are successfully demanding freedoms from employers
that simply weren’t considered a couple of years back, concludes John Sparkes.
But this is "probably based on low levels of employment".
Should that situation change, even the most ardent proponents of work-life
balance may well find themselves taking a very different tack.
Around the table…
Nick Candler is the HR and
finance director of Allied Domecq. He has worked for the drinks company since
September 2001 and previously worked for Unilever on such things as the
disposal of the Batchelors and Oxo food businesses. Candler has also been
finance director of Unilever’s culinary business in the US and joint head of
Van den Bergh Oils, a Unilever subsidiary based in Essex.
Lee Readman is a colleague
relations manager with Asda. He joined the supermarket chain in December 2001
and has been heavily involved in developing the firm’s flexible working
policies and commitment to work-life balance. Prior to this he held various
positions in the HR function of Tesco.
Wanda Bridge has been a
management consultant since 2000. Prior to this she was the head of department
in an IT recruitment company where she was responsible for corporate services,
HR, customer service and PR. From 1988-1993 she was also involved in
operational management and cabin crew management in the airline industry.
Christine Crewe has held a
wide range of personnel management positions within higher education. She is
currently deputy director of personnel at the University of Surrey. Here the HR
function is being devolved and personnel teams streamlined to forge closer
links with business initiatives. Prior to this Christine worked for the HR team
at Kings College London for 20 years.
Marie Gill is head of
colleague relations at Asda. She is responsible for the development of
personnel policy, terms and conditions of employment for 110,000 employees, and
progressing the "Asda Way of Working" culture. Her responsibilities
cover diversity in the workplace, flexible working arrangements, trade union
partnership, colleague involvement and recognition, payroll and e-hr
Jon Sparkes has been the HR
director of Generics Group since early 2001, having joined the company as HR
manager in 1995. Prior to joining Generics, Jon was organisational development
manager for Southern Derbyshire Training and Enterprise Council, and spent six
years in a variety of HR management roles at GPT (formerly GEC Plessey