The need for employees to enjoy a reasonable balance between their work and other aspects of their lives is now widely accepted. Work-life balance can have real business benefits, including increased productivity, improvements in performance and competitiveness, better morale, and lower levels of stress, absenteeism and sickness.
1. Find out what employees’ needs are, and how far they are being met
Find out what types of work/ home conflicts your employees are experiencing. You might assess personal circumstances. Also assess the impact of home commitments in terms of work absence. Exit interviews can be used to discover whether work-life balance issues are contributing to the departure of employees. You could set up focus groups or conduct surveys, explaining why you are doing so and following up on results. Be aware that different things matter to different individuals, and these are likely to vary. One person may value flexibility due to caring responsibilities while another values flexibility because of study commitments. The right balance for any individual will change over the course of their career, and maybe in the shorter term. It could be to fit around school holidays or depending on the level of support they get.
2. Build the business case
Use your findings to identify what kind of measures would improve the work-life balance of employees in your organisation and to establish a business case for improving work-life balance which can be related to the bottom line. Draw on the results of independent research to support your case. Communicate your ideas to influential people within the organisation, and to interested parties such as staff associations and trade unions. Involving employees in discussions from the start will help overcome resistance to change, as will ensuring that your work-life policy is inclusive and that everyone can benefit from it. Before proceeding, it is vital to identify financial resources and key personnel needed to implement and maintain policies and programmes. At the same time, take into account the costs of not offering flexible arrangements e.g. loss of key employees, costs of recruitment and training etc.
3. Focus on the culture of your organisation
Every workplace has its own culture. For work-life balance initiatives to work they need to be compatible with the existing organisational culture. Think about the vision, mission and values and consider how initiatives to support work-life balance can be aligned with what your organisation stands for. Focus on building links between proposed measures and values – remember that people work not just for money but for the satisfaction they gain from contributing to a shared purpose. Make sure that employees understand why they are doing the work they do and how it contributes to objectives. The culture of your organisation needs to be conducive to flexibility, innovative work practices, empowerment and trust. The introduction of policies such as flexible working relies on trust between managers and employees and willingness to empower employees to work in the ways that suit them best.
While managers will naturally wish that such arrangements are not abused, employees need to feel that there’s trust to get the job done. The emphasis should be on outputs and outcomes, i.e. performance and results, rather than on inputs or presenteeism. Trust is a great motivator and the introduction of flexible or home working is an opportunity to show employees that you trust them, building better relationships and improving intrinsic motivation. Those working from home may not work standard office hours but are often motivated to put additional discretionary effort or time into their work. It is also important for managers to set a good example, and to integrate work-life balance into the culture of the organisation at all levels, not just the lower grades.
4. Consider the structure of your organisation
Look at the organisation’s structure, and consider whether it enables or undermines work-life balance. A traditional hierarchy with a command-and-control approach to management may present a challenge for the effective implementation of new measures to enable flexibility – in such cases you will need to build a strong case for change, using research evidence to make the business benefits in terms of staff retention and productivity very clear. It may be easier to introduce flexible working practices in a flatter organisation where empowered employees work in teams, make decisions and plan their own work.
5. Improve personal and organisational efficiency
An important part of achieving work-life balance is ensuring that employees carry the “work” part of the equation out as smoothly as possible. Time management, delegation, prioritising, and handling information to avoid overload are all skills that can reduce both the experience of stress and the hours worked, whilst maintaining the same level of productivity. Such measures could have a positive effect on home life, for example, by eliminating the need for employees to take work home, or meaning that they are less tired and stressed when they get home. Consider ways in which organisational procedures and activities you could improved in order to reduce overlaps and inefficiencies, making employees’ working lives less frenetic, stressful, or tiring. Consider the possibility that in flatter less hierarchical organisations, some employees may be able to take on greater responsibilities enabling others to reduce their workloads.
6. Consider the options
There is no single approach that creates work-life balance: a flexible set of policies and benefits should be set up to cover a variety of situations. Consider the following:
• Flexible working hours
• Annualised Hours – allowing employees vary their working hours throughout the year
• Self-rostering – teams of employees negotiating and agreeing their own hours to accommodate needs.
• Buddy system – pairing people up so that they can cover for each other
• Flexible working location – remote working brings its own set of challenges for organisations and individuals
• Special leave – consider an allowance of paid or unpaid leave each year
• Career breaks
• Health, wellbeing and employee assistance programmes
• Childcare/eldercare subsidies
• Phased retirement – allowing employees to continue working part time and defer or stagger their receipt of pension benefits.
The abolition of default retirement age in the UK has led to an increase in the up-take of this option.
7. Take practicality into account
When deciding on the policies to introduce and the options to offer aim to strike a balance between employee benefits and the operational needs of the business. Consider the practical implications of each proposal carefully and think through which, if any, procedures you may need to introduce to approve and manage take-up of benefits. Offering choices which turn out to be unworkable and have to be withdrawn will only cause disappointment and even resentment and will undermine trust. It may not be possible to cater for every situation, but a flexible benefits package could be considered. One way to do this is to set out a list of priced benefits, and give each employee a fixed annual allowance to “buy” whichever benefits they choose from the package. Alternatively, could buy certain benefits from salary as required.
For further information see our checklist on introducing flexible benefits. Take employees’ ideas into account. If an employee can make a case for changing their way of working, then the idea should be investigated. This kind of suggestion scheme may prove more responsive to individual circumstances than a rigid set of policies and practices. It can also provide real benefits to business profitability.
8. Launch the initiative and communicate the benefits
Success depends not just on the policies chosen, but on how to implement them. Consider how to launch the scheme and select a range of channels to communicate the benefits to all, for example: staff meetings, departmental and team briefings, strategically placed posters, email messages and intranet postings. Stress that the take-up of flexible options will in no way affect promotion prospects, recognition, or other job opportunities. Ensure that all employees have ongoing access to information about the options available and know who to contact if there’s interest in taking advantage of them. Include information on policies and programmes in staff induction programmes.
9. Inform and train managers
It is vital to ensure consistent practice across the organisation. Line managers should receive information on the range of benefits available, and training in providing guidance to employees on combinations that work well. Incorporate work-life issues into annual performance and development reviews. Bear in mind balance cannot be “imposed” but employees can assist employers in deciding on the most appropriate options.
10. Evaluate success
It is important to maintain the advantages of a good worklife policy by keeping it relevant and up to date. Evaluate the effectiveness of policies by measuring employee satisfaction and performance, and by assessing factors such as staff retention rates. You should be able to demonstrate that policies produce a positive impact on the company’s bottom line, staff, customer satisfaction and retention. Also consider the climate within the organisation. Do not limit performance evaluation to an annual review. Consider meeting every four months to check how things are going. Careful monitoring, feedback, and adjustment will help to ensure that the policies work well.