Work-life balance can have enormous value in any organisation, but meeting the needs of a broad spectrum of employees is more art than science.
By Ed Heffernan
For well over a decade now, work-life balance has been part of the conversation. The 2019 Leinster Society Salary Survey cited, perhaps unsurprisingly, that 86% of respondents said it was a key factor when considering an external move. Surprisingly, however, some 52% of respondents cited they would sacrifice up to 10% of their financial reward for better work-life balance.
What is this mysterious, evasive thing that the majority of accountants would take a pay cut for? How is work-life balance defined? Sometimes things are more easily defined by what they are not, rather than what they are. Here’s an example:
- Work-life balance does not mean equality between work hours and non-work hours;
- Work-life balance does not necessarily mean working fewer hours than you are working now;
- Work-life balance is not a one-size-fits-all matter; it means different things to different people and will have a varied meaning over time for each individual; and
- Work-life balance means different things to different generations; for some, it’s a nice-to-have while for others, it’s an expectation.
More often than not, work-life balance comes down to three things – flexibility, achievement and enjoyment. Flexibility is doing your job at the times that work for you. We all have different commutes and different responsibilities outside of work; the employers that recognise this as a fact of life are the ones who retain their people for longer and get more return for their people’s time. For example, some employers will:
- Allow some degree of flexibility on start and finish times to allow for commutes, family responsibilities, sports commitments or even to make sure that when someone needs to finish a little early, they feel that they can;
- Allow people to work from “not the office” and trust that they will. Numerous studies suggest that the worst possible place for employee productivity is the workplace – there are just too many distractions. Enabling certain types of work, especially the type of work that requires uninterrupted focused activity, to be conducted outside of the office can lead to substantial increases in productivity; and
- Giving a little can mean gaining a lot. If one of your team has a medical appointment or another one-off event, allowing them the freedom to be away from the desk without deducting the time from their holidays, or stating that they have to make the time up, can have enormous reciprocal effects in the future. Small, random acts of kindness are more powerful than any policy.
There is a catch, though. Even if a company does manage to create a flexible working environment, it is still not going to please all of the people all of the time. When it comes to flexibility, some people at certain stages in their life will need a little more; others a little less. Implicit to the flexibility component of work-life balance is that it means different things to different people at different stages. Companies that create a culture of flexibility as opposed to enforcement often get the best results.
Achievement is the cornerstone of human ambition. Everyone needs to have a clear understanding of what they need to achieve in their role and to be recognised when this achievement occurs. This can be weekly, monthly or even annually. It must be measurable in some way and it must be recognised, either intrinsically (for example, a simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done) or extrinsically (for example, some type of financial reward – a token, an unexpected gesture, a bonus, or even a salary increase). Everyone needs to feel that they are achieving something in their role and it is ultimately up to their direct manager to ensure that achievements are recognised. Those who feel they are achieving something tend to feel like they have work-life balance and in many cases, they feel this way regardless of the hours they work.
Enjoyment is a less tangible, but equally important, part of work-life balance. Enjoyment does not just mean having fun – that’s only part of it. Enjoyment has a much wider definition when it comes to work-life balance. It’s how you feel about what you do; it’s how it feels to work in your team; it’s feeling that you are working towards a shared goal; it’s respecting and learning from the people you work with; it’s celebrating success and learning from failure with your colleagues; it’s the opportunity to help others learn; it’s the opportunity to work in a business that you believe in for a cause you admire; and it’s a whole lot more. Flexibility and achievement are the easy ones to define and create a policy for – enjoyment is the piece that is really personal, and the piece that many managers often get wrong.
Work-life balance can have enormous value in any organisation. Get the mix of flexibility, achievement and enjoyment right, and your people will work harder, be happier, be more productive and will stay longer. Get it wrong these days, and you will end up with the opposite. It’s that easy.
Why authentic leaders listen
For some people, it isn’t the work component that creates the imbalance; it’s the life component. At certain times, we all come under stresses that have nothing to do with work. Some people make work the escape from these stresses; other people bring these life stresses into the workplace with sometimes devastating consequences.
People don’t change without reason. If someone on your team begins to submit work that isn’t up to their usual standard, uncharacteristically misses multiple deadlines or just seems ‘off form’ in the office, don’t get annoyed – get curious.
Sometimes it might just be listening; sometimes it might be arranging some extra flexibility or a reduced workload on a temporary basis. Regardless of the situation, every time you engage and, where you can, offer to take action, you will not only make a difference for that person, but you will create longer lasting, deeper bonds between yourself and your team. You can create the space your people need when life causes an imbalance. And from experience, that’s where the real magic happens.
It’s easy to ignore the problem, but it takes bravery to ask the question. Which type of leader are you?
Ed Heffernan is Managing Partner at Barden Accounting and Tax.
This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of Accountancy Ireland.