Does flexibility offer a better work-life balance?

An Airtasker survey has shown that, while 29 per cent of remote workers struggled to maintain a proper work–life balance, only 23 per cent of office employees felt the same.

The dial on how, when and where we work is permanently shifting for many office workers. Now more than ever, it is key to make sure we are working from home, not living at work.

At a glance

  • Recent research has shown that 29 per cent of remote workers struggle to maintain a proper work–life balance, and have reported higher stress levels.
  • Structure is important in a clear differentiation between working from home and living at work. Experts suggest habits that help mark the beginning and end of a work day.
  • Recruitment specialists maintain that employees who feel supported in their flexibility choices are more likely to stay in an organisation and are happier in their work.

Even before COVID-19 rocked our world and disrupted working life so completely, the issue of flexible working and work–life balance was high on the agenda for employees.

The pandemic has given businesses previously just toying with the idea of remote work a hard push over the line.

Many employees have leaned into the flexibility of working from home, and have swapped long commutes for more time with the family or a good book.

Employers have benefitted, too. Managers who were once wary of not having employees in their line of sight have often been pleasantly surprised at how well staff have adjusted to remote working, and how much productivity has improved.

A survey by Airtasker in the US has found that remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than those based in an office.

Corporate giants Siemens, Fujitsu and Twitter have all recently announced that working from home is now their default policy for staff worldwide, and they are not alone. BAE Systems Australia and Australian Red Cross have both had successful flexible work practices – not just policies – in place for a number of years.

However, the Airtasker survey has also shown that, while 29 per cent of remote workers struggled to maintain a proper work–life balance, only 23 per cent of office employees felt the same. Their stress levels were higher as well, compared with those of office workers.

Flexibility pros and cons

What does “flexibility” really mean? Does it actually deliver a better work–life balance?

Author Christine Armstrong, who has written a working parent “manifesto” called The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish), has a good definition of flexible working, as “a menu of different ways of structuring work, which includes resetting traditional patterns of hours, part-time roles, compressed hours with longer hours over fewer days, job shares and working remotely out of the office or from home”.

Lack of flex has become a deal-breaker in the job market. Research shows that 84 per cent of Australian workers would choose a job that offered flexible working over a job that did not. Working parents are seen as the main driver for flex, which offers a solution – particularly for women – to the juggling act of holding down a career and caring for children or elderly relatives.

However, there is a problem, says Armstrong.

“After a woman has her first baby, her time spent caring for others rockets from two hours per week to an astonishing 51 hours a week, according to research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Flex is supposed to enable women to both continue their career and do all that caring.”

After interviewing hundreds of women for her book, Armstrong reaches the conclusion that flex is “a con”.

“The problem I hear is that, too often, flexibility sounds great in theory, but is very difficult in practice for both the worker and the employer. It often ends up a triple whammy of the same hours as before, albeit in a different location, lower status and less chance of a pay rise or promotion,” Armstrong says.

When less is more

Financial consultants Collins SBA began a four-hour working day trial nearly three years ago with the intention of improving work–life balance for team members. The idea was not to work less for the same money, but to work more effectively.

“It has been largely successful, says Andrew Pearce FCPA, director client services.

During the core hours of nine to one, all team members are expected to be in the office, but there is some flexibility around starting and leaving times.

“It allows parents to pick up children from school and, in one case, a golfing enthusiast has improved his handicap,” says Pearce.

The policy has also helped in recruitment, attracting talent to the firm and in spurring a culture of innovation.

“We started to get staff coming to us with ideas on how we could better use software to get through work more efficiently. We still have a quick weekly huddle with all staff, where we discuss what we are working on for the business to make it a better environment.”

Separation of home and work

The pandemic has meant many people working remotely from home for the first time. Not Georgina McIntyre, who has been doing this for the past five years, leading a virtual team spread across Australia.

Lead principal psychologist, innovation and product development at recruitment specialists Chandler Macleod, McIntyre says that a lot of organisations have to formalise what flexibility looks like for each individual working remotely, so that life and work do not blur into each other.

“We talk about purposefully separating home and work. It’s so easy if your laptop is set up and visible to do that one last thing after dinner. It’s important to shut it down and clear the workspace away.

“Research shows that when people feel they are being supported in their flexibility choices, they are more likely to stay with an organisation, and they are happier,” McIntyre says.

Steve Glaveski, productivity consultant and author of Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life, says remote working requires structure and rituals to mark the beginning and end of work. “In my case, it’s a walk or a workout. It’s easy to build good habits if you make the thing you want to do more obvious, and the thing you want to do less of less obvious. But, if you don’t set boundaries, other people will set them for you,” Glaveski says.

"It's a case of being more intentional about how we spend our time, cultivating more time to explore old or new interests, and less time on shallow distractions." Steve Glaveski, author and productivity consultant

His advice to management is to lead by example and set the parameters.

“It should be clear to your team members that between agreed x and y hours they are working, and outside those hours they are unavailable. If you get into the habit of answering questions at 9pm, then everyone is complicit to a certain degree.”

The difficulty during quarantine is that, for better or worse, work is a socially validated activity, and it is very easy to use it as a distraction when we are feeling anxious about life, he says.

“It’s a case of being more intentional about how we spend our time, cultivating more time to explore old or new interests, and less time on shallow distractions.”

Showing you care

Now more than ever, managers need to show that they care about their staff and focus on the ties that bind people together.

Reimagining the future of a post-pandemic workforce, consultants McKinsey caution about the risks of letting two organisational cultures emerge, dominated by in-person workers and managers who benefit from the positive elements of co-location and face-to-face collaboration, while culture and social cohesion for the virtual workforce languishes.

“When this occurs, remote workers can soon feel isolated, disenfranchised and unhappy... The sense of belonging, common purpose and shared identity that inspires all of us to do our best work gets lost.”

In other words, flexibility might give more control back to the employee to work when and how they want, but the flip side is that the space between employer and employee may not just be physical.

McIntyre says the relationship between leaders and employees will become more important than ever.

“Regular face time with your leader is most important for remote workers, and has implications for engagement and performance. The most effective leaders have that time in the diary to check in as a team and, without overdoing it, recreate the social environment, team drinks, virtual meetings both individually and collectively.”

CPA Library resource: Working from home: making the new normal work for you. Read now.

The four-day week experiment

In these strange times, once-radical ideas are becoming more mainstream. Adopting a four-day working week as a way to recover from the ravages of the pandemic, although not a new idea, is one enjoying its moment in the spotlight. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently come out in support of the four-day week, encouraging employers to consider the option.

Finland is also considering a move to a four-day working week. The country’s progressive Prime Minister Sanna Marin has gone even further, indicating she would favour cutting the working day to six hours.

New Zealand’s investment group Perpetual Guardian is well ahead of the four-day week curve. The company began trialling four-day working weeks in February 2018, with staff receiving an extra day off work on full pay. Staff were not required to work additional hours on their four working days.

Founder Andrew Barnes says the move began as an experiment to discover why staff were not as productive as they could be. Would things change if they were given an incentive in the form of an additional day off? If they had time to do other things outside of work, how would that affect productivity?

What the company discovered was that, over the four days, staff became very focused and changed their behaviour and processes in order to complete all their work and enjoy their extra day off. “The net result sees productivity go up, and the byproduct is you get better rested, more engaged, more enthusiastic workers who do better work and do it more quickly,” says Barnes.

The four-day week becomes relevant to a better work–life balance because it puts the boundaries back in, argues Barnes. “You are creating a period of downtime where there is no work time. The organisation is saying, this is your extra day off: don’t do anything, don’t read your emails. What you are doing is putting time back into their week.”

What if employees succumb to the temptation to work on their day off?

Barnes says the problem is made a team responsibility, with managers keeping an eye on their staff to make sure their workload is not overwhelming. In some cases, funding was available from Perpetual to support individuals, their families and their communities for activities they could do on their day off.

Better workplaces, not fewer days

Rabee Tourky, professor of economics at the Australian National University, has a different view on the four-day week and thinks its proponents underestimate the importance of social interaction in the workplace in keeping us happy and fulfilled.

His tweeted reaction to online debates about a four-day week and the economic fall-out of the pandemic was: “For heaven’s sake. We need six-day work weeks to make up for lost time.”

Although he admits this was an off-the-cuff remark, Tourky says separating life and work is not clear-cut. “When we think about work–life balance, we mainly think about the life part, but the experience of the pandemic has highlighted the importance of social interaction at work for a fulfilling life. Without a work community, life can become quite lonely for many of us.”

He believes there needs to be a refocus on the work community, which requires some “smart managers who are emotionally capable, and who don’t think about productivity per se, but see productivity as the result of how they can provide an environment that will make the life of their workers happier”.

The end of "always-on"

As organisations experiment and learn from these new ways of working, what has hopefully changed is the belief that an always-on work culture is good for anyone.

The 10 or 12-hour working days in professions such as finance, consulting and law may be well-compensated, but they come at a high price for families and are impossible for single parents.

The reality may be that a work–life balance is simply not achievable unless traditional ways of working are completely upended. If only one positive comes out of the pandemic, it is an opportunity for companies to have a major rethink about how their people, productivity and happiness fit together.

As Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian, likes to put it, “If you are not reimagining the future, you are just reengineering the past”.


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December 2021
December 2021

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