Senior buy-in needed for better work-life balance

Unwillingness on the part of management and IT departments to actively
support homeworkers is challenging HR’s plans to introduce flexibility to the
workplace, writes Quentin Reade

Many employers are struggling to successfully introduce work-life balance
policies despite the benefits they can offer in boosting productivity and
helping to attract and retain key staff.

New research reveals that efforts to help staff balance their work and home
lives through such initiatives as flexible working hours, home working and
compressed working weeks often fail because of a lack of management and IT

A report by the Institute for Employment Studies finds that although
organisations are increasingly offering work-life balance options, employees
are often reluctant to embrace them.

Other research by Nextra claims attempts to introduce flexible working are
also undermined by unco-operative IT departments, which don’t offer enough
support for remote workers.

Sally Dench, author of the IES report Worklife Balance: Beyond the Rhetoric,
said HR and senior management must take the lead if employers are serious about
empowering staff and making work-life balance part of their culture. It is only
with support from the top of an organisation that line managers will have the
confidence to approve and encourage changes to traditional working practices,
claims Dench.

"There is a need to lead from the top. Both individuals and their
managers need support to overcome real barriers. If senior managers are serious
about promoting work-life balance they need to take a more proactive stance; it
rarely happens without positive leadership from above," she said.

The importance of managerial support for the effective introduction of
flexible working polices is also highlighted by Roffey Park expert Claire
McCartney. She agrees that having formal work-life balance policies is
irrelevant unless line managers have the necessary skills and a commitment to
introduce them.

McCartney advises HR professionals to carry out research within their
organisations to discover what support managers need and then create guidelines
to help them. "The culture needs to be developed over the years and become
engrained in the organisation," said McCartney.

The IES report finds that another reason for the poor take up of flexible
working policies is that many staff are still getting used to the culture
change and are reluctant to break entrenched practices such as long-hours
working and presenteeism.

Dench said: "Rights to time off and flexible working are rarely enough
on their own. A change in culture and attitudes within the organisation is
necessary for the successful implementation of work-life balance

Fran Wilson, advisor at the CIPD, said the promotion of flexible working is
held back because many employees are concerned that adopting new work patterns
will adversely affect their careers. "Sometimes people are scared that if
they are not in the office they will be forgotten about," she added.

Wilson also believes that staff working from home often worry that they
cannot prove how much work they have done away from the office – especially if
it is creative or thinking-based and does not have a specific end product.

Wilson said HR, line managers and staff need to talk the issue of work-life
balance through properly to ensure that mutual trust is developed.

The introduction of progressive working practices such as working from home
are also often hindered by a lack of support from an organisation’s IT
department, according to research by telecoms company Nextra. Its survey of
1,000 HR directors found that most are battling with their IT departments over
the amount of support flexible workers need.

Only 4 per cent of respondents believe their IT departments promote flexible
working in contrast to 42 per cent who report that their HR department does.

The HR professionals polled believe there is a reluctance among IT
departments to support work-life balance initiatives because they see it as an
additional drain on their time and resources.

Barry Hartop, chief executive of Nextra UK, said: "IT departments are
already using their resources to the maximum supporting workers within the
organisation. Supporting remote workers brings a whole new set of headaches,
especially in terms of providing the sort of 24/7 helpdesk support and hardware
maintenance that flexible workers require."

Hartop advises firms to overcome these problems by having IT workers
dedicated to supporting remote workers.

Another solution is outsourcing IT support to a third-party specialist.
"The survey shows that people who flexi-work are also likely to be the
least IT savvy within an organisation. This only emphasises the need for IT
support to be constantly available as productivity gains – not to mention
return on investment in the technology itself – from flexible working will be
lost if the technology is not accessible," said Hartop.

Karen Janman, director of consultancy at Flexecutive, believes that
organisations must ensure both their HR and IT departments are committed and
working together to ensure the successful introduction of work-life balance
policies. She warned that problems of inadequate IT support or systems arise
when flexible working practices are introduced without thorough planning.

Janman believes that once initial IT systems are in place, supporting remote
workers is not necessarily any more costly or time-consuming than supporting
any other employee. "Once it is piloted the policy can be rolled out
smoothly," she added.

She said: "You need IT and HR directors on board. You need to look at
the whole issue of flexible working more strategically."

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