Work-life balance has taken off to an extent that has astonished its
advocates and critics alike. Work-life balance has suddenly become a rallying
point for complaint. It’s as if we have collectively rediscovered what our
ancestors didn’t need telling. Even God rested on the seventh day. Human beings
need more than work in their lives if they are to stay sane – whether it’s time
for their kids, that novel or just to hang out. The vigour of civil society
depends on our capacity to join in – but we can’t if we’re working.
But it’s not just about civil society; it is increasingly relevant to
workplace performance. But despite the arguments – reduced absenteeism, less
staff turnover and a productive, committed workforce – UK employers have found
it difficult to reconcile flexible working with the embedded culture of
At the Industrial Society we have come to realise is that numbers of hours
worked is only half the story. Control over working time – time sovereignty –
is just as important. The more say workers have over their working time, the
less stressed they feel and the more satisfied they are with their work. Ask
women if they’d prefer longer maternity leave or flexibility and you’ll find
they rank flexibility higher. And why should that be surprising? Flexibility at
work is an extension of a juggling culture that allows most people to meet
their responsibilities and give as much back to their work as they can.
One of our recent studies found that senior managers who are choosing when
and how they work perform significantly better than nine-to-five colleagues.
Equally, our research shows some human resource managers are calculating the
cost of not introducing flexible working practices in today’s tight labour
market. Staff vote with their feet and employers are left counting the extra
cost of the recruitment and training of new staff.
While the debate extends to all groups – young, old, men, women – carers
must have a platform of their own. The government’s new Work and Parents
Taskforce is examining ways of giving working mothers and fathers of young
children the legal right to ask to work flexible hours and to have their
requests considered seriously by their employers, in a similar approach to the
one advocated by the Industrial Society in its submission to the Green Paper on
Work and Parents.
Without progress in this area, UK employees will continue to fare badly
compared with other workers in Europe. The challenge for the Task Force is to
make flexible working the norm for all UK employees. The question is whether
employers are prepared to accept the arguments – and have the confidence that
if they give their people more freedom, the confidence won’t be abused. They
By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Industrial Society