Separate or integrate? This is the question of Work-Life Balance - M-Powered Projects

In the previous newsletter, you read about the challenges associated with the preparation of a project co-financed by the European Union. Today, we encourage you to reflect on the subject of Work-Life Balance. Why do we link these topics? Because we are very human-centred idealists who believe that the Work-Life Balance issue should be fundamental to the successful management of people and projects.  And, just as Marzena promoted a reasonable approach to project planning, I would like to encourage a reasonable approach to respecting the personal and professional needs of both you and your employees.

So, let’s start with a short story.

It’s Friday, late afternoon, and a long working week is finally coming to an end. In a multinational company, the Human Resources Manager is invited to participate in an unplanned teleconference with her boss.

“We have a great task for you,” says the self-satisfied superior. “By Monday morning, we want you to develop a Work-Life Balance programme for our branch. As you are aware, we are behind our competitors in adopting this approach, so we will pay you overtime to get this done quickly.”

This is a true story and one of many similarly ironic anecdotes that are common among HR professionals. Thankfully though, this total misunderstanding of Work-Life Balance is changing and it is starting to be seen for what it is: a badly needed solution to a lot of organisational problems.

In 2012, Google started a long-term research study called gDNA, which focused on developing a scientific understanding of the work experience. The conclusions from the first edition of gDNA research have shown that only 31% of employees are able to put a clear border between their work and private life. They refer to these people as “Segmentors” and they have the rare ability to fall asleep even in the face of an avalanche of e-mails and approaching deadlines. They simplify their needs in terms of Work-Life Balance and report statements like: “I don’t like to have to think about work while I am at home”.

In contrast, “Integrators” are the opposite and they find that work exists in the background of their private lives all the time. They not only check e-mails in the evenings, but constantly refresh their inbox to make sure that they don’t miss anything important. What is interesting is that, among this group, more than a half say they would like to separate their professional and private lives to a greater extent. Very often, they no longer know where and when their private life begins and their professional lives end.

This is a case study of a single company, but it is a company that is known for being at the cutting edge of change and innovation. They understand that Work-Life Balance is a strategic decision, and should be adjusted to the personal needs of the employees. I believe this is the future of our working world and that it will affect companies on three distinct levels: Human Resources Department strategy, the role of line management, and work organisation.

Work-Life Balance and the Future of Work 

For whom do we design Work-Life Balance solutions?

Human Resources Departments are facing many new challenges as the labour market changes and evolves, especially in terms of the expectations and needs of employees. The OECD, for example, have published predictions based on a study, which demonstrates that by 2022, 75% of university graduates in Europe will be women. This in itself will drastically change our approach to talent management, which will shift to cater more heavily to women and their priorities as employees.

At the same time, we are seeing changes in our cultural and traditional roles, characterised, inter alia, by the growing need of men to actively participate in family life, with paternity leave becoming more and more common. This coincides with another demographic change: our aging society, which will see people remaining professionally active until much later in life. Last but certainly not least, a new generation is entering the workforce. Often called the digital generation, they think, learn, and communicate in completely different ways to their parents. Often, we hear about how demanding they are from the outset – even during the recruitment phase – asking for flexible hours in order to pursue hobbies and personal goals. This is usually portrayed as selfish or unreasonable, but is it? Or does it demonstrate self-awareness in relation to Work-Life Balance?

All these groups have one thing in common: the need for autonomy and an individualised approach to determining working conditions. And, the new goal for management and HR departments is identifying employees’ needs and creating packages of solutions that will connect with employees’ personal goals and enable the best possible performance of work.

What is the new goal for managers?

In the area of people management, the role of the manager is also changing.  I believe that in the near future, there will be much less emphasis on micro-management (e.g. monitoring working time), and a much greater focus on playing the role of “supporting leader”, an approach often referred to as “appreciative leadership”. In this approach, the manager’s primary responsibility is creating a friendly working environment and removing barriers to achieving the best possible results, including those related to Work-Life Balance. Their role will be more to follow their team than to lead it.

The main idea behind this approach is connected to the notion of achieving a happy workplace. People generally want to feel good wherever they are, but happiness is subjective. It is up to the manager to explore the needs of their team and to work towards establishing a working culture that is Work-Life Balance friendly.

How to organise a better workplace?

Organisations that prioritise Work-Life Balance pay more attention to the results achieved by a team than to the number of hours that team spend in the workplace. In some industries where it is possible, they can even be very flexible about when, where, and how the team achieve those results, as long as the goals are met. According to Alison Maitland, author of the book “Future work” (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2014), this approach is like releasing butterflies that have been confined to four walls and unable to spread their wings and allows people to fully enjoy their work and personal life.

This flexibility policy should, however, be closely monitored so that “wherever and whenever” does not become “always and everywhere”. Ultimately, good Work-Life Balance aims to help people to feel fulfilled in their professional field, while also having time to achieve personal goals, pursue dreams, and develop their passions.

TRUST Work-Life Balance Solutions

Finally, let me mention the TRUST principle, which can be helpful in designing effective Work-Life Balance solutions.

T – Trust Your People

People generally have good intentions, even if they don’t always express them or behave in a way that is easy to understand. By basing my responses on trust, I am prepared to understand why a problem has occurred and what I can do to help people tackle it. Trust is also essential to remote working situations.

R – Reward Results Not Hours

Feedback and appreciation. We all need them to feel motivated and engaged. But be careful what you appreciate. If you always reward overtime and are only randomly appreciative of results, you create a culture where working time is more important than outcomes.

U – Understand the Business Case

Work-Life Balance solutions must align with your business. There are many proven business benefits: higher productivity, big savings on property and travel, higher engagement level, and lower risk of business disruption.

S – Start the Change from the Top

Work-Life Balance should be a culture and a value. It is not possible to implement this kind of change without strategic decisions supporting it.

T – Treat People as Individuals

There is no universal Work-Life Balance system that works for everybody. Life balance means something different for each of us, and it is not static. Our attitudes and needs change throughout our lives. That is why an individual approach is essential in developing effective Work-Life Balance solutions.

But what about you? What does Work-Life Balance mean for you? Do you feel balanced?

We’ll keep exploring this idea together in future blog posts. Stay in touch.

Are you facing Work-Life Balance problems in your company?

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