Nick Martindale 10 Jan 2017 10:00am

Striking the perfect work/life balance

The concept of work/life integration has entered the business lexicon as managers try to negotiate the complicated relationship between employers and employees more holistically. As Nick Martindale discovers, flexible working and wellbeing are at the heart of this narrative

Caption: Illustration: Jack Hudson

There are many ways in which our lives are notably better than previous generations’. We live longer, have more disposable income and, on the whole, enjoy a better standard of living than those born a few decades earlier. But if there is one area where things are not as good, it is the hours we work.

According to recruitment firm Morgan McKinley’s Working Hours Survey 2016, 84% of people work more than their contracted hours, and 47% say this has a negative impact on their personal lives. Research by on-demand staffing platform Coople goes further, suggesting 20% have seen their health affected by work, in some cases leading to stress-related illnesses or depression.

The topic of work/life balance has grown in prominence over the last couple of decades as employees and pressure groups in particular have pushed the case for alternative ways – and places – of working, challenging conventional patterns. More recently, the concept of work/life integration has emerged, based loosely around the idea of creating a seamless blend between personal and professional interests, challenging the idea that work needs to be done in particular set hours.Carole Gaskell, managing director of business coaching firm Full Potential Group, has been a long-standing proponent of seeking integration rather than balance.

“To me ‘balance’ infers a precarious state that is only ever achieved temporarily,” she says. “Balance requires constant effort and attention and wobbles are inevitable over time. Integration, on the other hand, generates a higher degree of stability. When all aspects of our lives are fully integrated, there’s a greater degree of harmony and flow.”

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School and president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is also a leading advocate of the concept (he has produced a report in partnership with the Bank Workers Charity on making flexible working work). “If you say work/life balance you’re implying there isn’t any. The other way of approaching it is to say that, given technology, why do you have to come in from 8am to 6pm at all? We have the capability of working more flexibly and integrating our lives a bit.”

There is a strong business case here for organisations, suggests Hilary Lindsay, president of ICAEW, who has conducted her own research into the area. “Nine-to-five doesn’t work anymore,” she says. “When I talk to members who have examples of flexible working opportunities, what is obvious is there is a win-win for everybody. If you’re looking to get the best out of your staff, the way to do it is not by having them at work wishing they were somewhere else, but helping them to do the things they want to do, as well as the things they need to do in work.”

The problem, though, is that organisations have yet to really alter how they operate, particularly when it comes to how and where people work. “We’ve noticed businesses saying they want to create the conditions for which their employees want to come to work, and nothing else,” says Andrew Mawson, founder and director of Advanced Workplace Associates. “Not to help them stay away, at home or otherwise. They ultimately want to be in control still, and have the hearts and minds of their workforce.”

One issue that needs overcoming is the perception that people who do work more flexibly have somehow landed a “special deal”. This was borne out in Working Families’ recent annual benchmark survey, says Mubeen Bhutta, head of campaigns and policy. “Even among the top employers there is still an individualisation of flexibility,” she says. “It’s still seen as doing the employee a favour rather than a way of doing business that pays dividends for the employer as well as the employee.”

She believes there needs to be a sea-change in organisations’ attitudes, particularly around how jobs are designed in the first place. “We’re calling for flexible-by-default recruitment where, rather than assuming you’re going to hire someone for Monday to Friday for 35 hours a week, you actually think about what is the best way to get the job done. Too often flexibility just means flexibility to do the same job.”

The situation is compounded – as well as facilitated – by the use of technology, and particularly the proliferation of smartphones. This is a real problem, says Cooper, both in our inability to restrict our use of devices to working hours, and in the sheer volume of emails people receive nowadays. “The case for reducing emails is to not burn people out and to get people to prioritise what they’re doing rather than paying attention to everything that comes in at the same time,” he says.

Already there are examples of some companies preventing people emailing colleagues in the same building, while others have taken steps to block email access outside working hours or while people are on holiday. “I think it’s rather sad that companies have to do all this, because we do have an ‘off’ button,” says Cooper. “But it’s becoming a big issue, because the technology is managing us rather than us managing it.”

Restricting the use of email is something HR business Lee Hecht Harrison Penna is considering for 2017, says Nick Goldberg, CEO, UK & Ireland, particularly when employees are supposed to be on holiday. “By switching off email we believe employees will be afforded ‘brain space’ to think more creatively and innovatively without being consumed by the whirlwind of getting through the to-do list,” he says.

Yet it’s also possible that restricting email access could create further issues. Roffey Park’s The Management Agenda 2016 report found 31% of managers believe the abundance of mobile technology has a positive impact on the balance between their home and work lives. “Our research shows that the sense of feeling connected is regarded as increasingly important, not just for the business, but for the individual,” says Carol Hatcher, research assistant.

The whole subject of work/life integration – and the use of technology – is a particular issue for the accountancy sector, says Nicki Cresswell, training and wellbeing co-ordinator at accountants’ wellbeing charity CABA. “It’s something we’re asked about from graduates entering their training contracts right through to people preparing for retirement,” she says. “It seems to be a set of skills that people are constantly wanting to look at and improve throughout their working career.”

There’s also a growing expectation among employees that organisations will allow at least a degree of flexibility. “I typically recruit roles at the higher end of the salary scale and a good proportion of candidates are fairly young, up and coming in profile, often with young families,” says Patrick Moore, business director at Michael Page Finance. “This is always one of the top two or three things they want in a role, above remuneration but not necessarily career. Companies that are able to offer more flexibility have better retention rates among their most talented employees.”

How well accountancy firms handle the issue of flexibility varies, and there can sometimes be more potential for flexible working arrangements in in-house roles rather than working in public practice, says Adrian O’Connor, founding partner of Global Accounting Network.

“In an accountancy firm you’re working to somebody else’s deadline and your time is billed,” he says. “In-house, you are more likely to be engaged with setting your own deadlines. This, of course, makes flexible working and work/life integration easier to manage.”

Yet that is not to say the large accountancy firms are not addressing this issue, not least on the back of the business case surrounding attracting and retaining talent. Deloitte, for instance, has had a major focus on this over the past three years, after exit interviews revealed that a lack of work/life integration was a core reason for people leaving.

Central to this has been an attempt to change the culture around how those who worked flexibly were perceived and treated within the business. “You can have every single option available but if what they experience on a daily basis is a disapproval of working in an agile way then they typically won’t take up the schemes available,” says Emma Codd, Deloitte’s managing partner for talent. “We have three clear principles: trust and respect; open and honest communication on both sides; and to only judge on output. That was the really critical one for us, but you need all three to have a successful relationship.”

It’s also been a priority for Grant Thornton, and in particular its CEO Sacha Romanovitch, who juggles her own family commitments with young children and elderly parents, commuting between Devon and London. To date, around 14% of staff have some kind of formal flexible working arrangement, she says, but many more have informal set-ups.

She’s keen to stress, too, that this is a constantly evolving area; future initiatives are likely to revolve around where people work, as well as making use of those who have left the workplace but could offer skills on a freelance basis, as part of the “gig economy”. “We already operate with associates who come in and work on specific contracts, and then they may disappear off for the rest of the year and do something else,” she says. “But increasingly we will explore how we can tap into groups of talent.”

Initiatives such as these will be essential if organisations – both within and outside the accountancy sector – are to adapt to the changing demands of employees, and continue to attract and retain the best talent, and eventually this will lead to a broader cultural change in the world of business. “It will become something people ask about at interview rather than seen as a bit of a curve ball,” says Cresswell. “It will be something businesses expect employees to ask, and they will be pleased when they are because it shows that people want to work to their strengths. Eventually it will just become the norm.

“There is a win-win. To get the best out of your staff, the way to do it is not by having them at work wishing they were somewhere else, but helping them do the things they want to do, as well as the things they need to do in work”

Escape to the country

When James Hodgson decided to leave his job as a corporate finance manager for a Big Four firm in Bristol back in 2004 and join the family accountancy business his grandfather had set up 60 years before in Falmouth, one motivation was to get a better work/life combination. “I was working fairly silly hours and it wasn’t uncommon to be leaving in the dark and getting home in the dark,” he says.

Today, he’s one of three partners – and the only Hodgson still working for the firm – and is rarely in the office after 6pm. “You need to have that balance,” he says. “If you’re 100% work-focused I don’t think it helps your work. You need to have a broad perspective and think things through. If you’re constantly at the coal-face that becomes tougher.”

As an employer, though, he has found talented individuals are reluctant to move down to Cornwall. “We’ve been trying to recruit potential partners now for a couple of years,” says Hodgson, who also helped set up Falmouth business improvement district to encourage other organisations to consider the location as a base. “There is this idea that once people have moved down here their career has ended, and that’s wrong. Your career just takes a different path.”