Whose life is it anyway?

Applying an effective work-life balance policy that meets the needs of the
organisation and the individual is a difficult juggling act for the HR
practitioner. Sara Bean talks to Liz Rayner, HR director of Shell Gas and
power, about the practicalities of implementing flexible working policies in a
fast moving business

The challenge of achieving a happy balance between home and work has always
been the same. It’s about being able to enjoy your work, your family life and your
leisure time in equal measure.

However, in recent months the phrase "work-life balance" has
become common currency and has even moved to the top of the political agenda.
The Government’s green paper, Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice, has
generated much debate about the feasibility or otherwise of allowing new
parents the statutory right to return to work part-time, while directives like
the Working Time Regulations contain a number of provisions dealing with the
length of the working day.

So whose job is it to decide how an individual balances their work-life
commitments? Is it the responsibility of the employer, the employee or the
legislature? And does flexible working benefit an employee to the detriment of
their organisation?

Shell companies in the UK, which has been operating a range of work-life
balance policies for many years, illustrates how flexible work policies can
bring major advantages to both an organisation and its employees.

The Shell experience

Shell in the UK comprises some 9,000 employees, many of which work in global
areas. The company offers a range of flexible working initiatives, including
part-time working, working from home, job sharing, career breaks and maternity
and paternity leave.

But the challenges of increased competition, globalisation, new technology
and the demands of attracting and retaining high calibre employees means that
the company is constantly reviewing the way in which its employees work.

Liz Rayner, HR director of Shell Gas and Power is a passionate advocate of
flexible working, which, she argues, is an important way to get the best out of
people. "Work-life balance is often said to be a the moral responsibility
of employers, but it is also in the company’s best interests. And support from
the top is one of the most important elements."

She explains the reason why achieving an effective work-life balance
strategy is so important to the company. Shell needs to attract, retain and
motivate the highest quality of staff, to support the challenges of:

– increased customer demand

– global competition

– and a workforce with higher expectations.

Teleworking and virtual teams

Customers are increasingly demanding of the services they receive, so within
the retail and consumer side of Shell, where staff need to get closer to the
customer base, there are many more people working from home instead of coming
into the office.

Says Rayner, "That required quite a lot of thinking about. We had to
give people guidelines about how to keep in touch. How do you set targets and
essentials like what do you give them to work from home? What do you pay for in
the home? Are they insured? You have to think about the practical
administrative issues and soft issues like how can they still feel

And because, in order to compete on the global stage, the company has got an
international agenda, employees are grouped into "virtual teams",
within a European, rather than country by country basis.

This means, explains Rayner, "You could be sitting in the UK and your boss
may be based in Germany. What we’re saying is that we’re not London-centric any
more, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t work from the country that you’re
based in, which is far less upheaval for your family."

IT solutions

The widespread use of the Internet and e-mail has brought with it the
advantages of speed, immediacy and constant access. Unfortunately this also
means that it tends to impinge upon people’s home lives.

Last year Shell conducted a global survey of its employees. In answer to the
question, "I have difficulty managing my work and my life", 59 per
cent said that was the case.

When the survey was discussed at the Shell global leadership meeting, it
emerged that, particularly among senior managers, one of the biggest headaches
was the amount of e-mails they received, especially at the weekend.

Says Rayner, "We found out that e-mail can be a real pain. Talking
about that we realised that you don’t have to send an e-mail when you write
one. No e-mails at the weekend is a great step in the right direction because
what it does is show that people at the top take the issue seriously."

The company also realised that for people working within a global based
business, especially those based at home, an IT help desk which is only
available from nine until five could become more of a source of stress than
support. As a result, the company has set up a global-based help desk service
called "Follow the sun". With locations spanning Malaysia in the east
to the USA in the west, the service means that IT help can be accessed by staff
working at home, in the office or when travelling on business, via one number,
24-hours a day.

Employee expectations

Shell already has a range of flexible working policies, (see box) but agrees
Rayner, people still want solutions to their particular problems. She argues
that the ideal solution to an employee’s request for flexible working hours is
to come up with an individual solution that meets everyone’s needs.

"Individuals decide what they want, but of course there is a business
need as well. It’s about matching those two. Sometimes an individual may say
‘it’s all the businesses fault, they ought to change things for me’. But you
have to take ownership yourself too."

She explains that Shell doesn’t push flexible working as a policy but leaves
it to the individual and the line manager to discuss. If they come to the HR
department with their query, they will receive help and support in achieving a
mutually satisfying decision.

"It’s important that they both take ownership of it. They must discuss
what does this mean for the other people in the team? How can we manage it? And
perhaps they will need to talk to them about it as well."

Whose job is it anyway?

So is it the job of the legislature to determine the way in which employers
handle work-life balance issues? Rayner has her doubts. She argues that Shell
has always been ahead of the law anyway, offering generous maternity benefits
and career breaks long before they were legally required.

The practicalities of ensuring that an international company adheres to UK
law are also a major issue. Because Shell is organised across European lines,
only some of its people are employed in the UK, so legislation in the UK may
not have much relevance for a line manager who runs their department across
fifteen countries.

Says Rayner, "The most important thing is the environment in which the
company works, the relationship between employers and managers. And if that’s
what works and if you treat people with respect, the last thing you want to
come back to is the law."

Business benefits of work-life policies

Business benefits of work-life
balance policies:

– helps to retain skilled and trained employees

– matches the requirements of the business with the needs of
the employee

– helps employees to balance their job and other interests

– increases skills, ideas and experiences through job-sharing

– brings flexibility to help manage peaks or troughs in workload

– complements Shell’s other equal opportunities policies and

Case study – career break

Kate Cowie, head of personnel and
administration, Gas supply group, has been working for Shell in the UK since
1987, during which she has taken a career break of three and a half years.

After her first child was born, Kate was able to take time out
of the workplace with the commitment by Shell that it would try to place her
back into a job when she was ready to return. She was asked to work one month
each year to "keep in touch". The first period was in Dansk Shell in
Copenhagen, with the second in Aberdeen in the Brent Field Unit.

She recently transferred (along with her husband, also a Shell
employee) to Australia with Shell. She said, "I was offered a six week
period of unpaid leave to settle the children and find a new nanny. Now I am
planning to reduce my contractual hours, and work from home if necessary, so I
can spend more time with the boys. It is hard work but, thanks to the company’s
approach and recognition that we have commitments outside work, we believe we
have been able to combine successfully our careers with being parents."

Shell work-life balance initiatives

Member of the Employers for work-life
balance alliance.

Career breaks

This is intended to allow an employee to maintain contact with
Shell while they take extended leave to bring up a family. A career break:

– lasts up to two years, with a maximum of five years over
three career breaks

– requires that each application for a career break is
considered on an individual basis

– requires the applicant to commit to four weeks work/training
per year

– is treated as unpaid leave so the applicant is still a Shell
employee during their absence

– ensures the employee is kept in contact with the company via
their line manager.

Parental leave policy

Shell operates a variety of parental leave policies, which

– six months paid maternity leave after two years continuous
service by 11th week before baby is born

– paternity leave of five days paid leave

– on-site nursery at Aberdeen site

– a childcare adviser

– adoption leave according to individual circumstances.

Flexible working

Approval for flexible working arrangements is at the discretion
of line manager and is dependent on the needs of the business being met. The
three main types:

– part-time working to suit individual and needs of the business

– job sharing by agreement between individuals and line

– working from home, with all, or some of, the working hours
based at home rather than the work location. Can be arranged on regular or ad
hoc basis.

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