Is work life balance a load of hot air?

hot air on flexible workingThe notion of work life balance is not a new one, and indeed over the past few months there have been stories of exercising during work increasing productivity, people forgoing bonuses for flexible working and charitable volunteering on company time improving performance.

As I'm writing this blog from home whilst recovering from surgery I can certainly attest to the ease with which it's possible and the clear productivity gains that are achievable if you give people more control over how (and where) they work.

Yet recent research suggests that all of this is falling on deaf ears.  Employers might claim that they support flexible working, but the evidence suggests that much of this is mere hot air.

The evidence comes in the form of the annual WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress report.  This year, it has published a survey examining the attitudes of executives and managers in three major economies – the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, as well as those in a number of developing countries.

The findings are quite damning.  They discovered a huge disconnect between what managers say, and what they do.  They may say they are happy for employees to work flexibly, but in practice they want them in the office on the clock.

You can work flexibly but...

For instance, the report found that working flexibly came with certain repurcussions.  Employee respondents reported penalties for working flexibly, including:


  • receiving the unpopular jobs
  • getting negative appraisal reports
  • poor comments from supervisors
  • denied promotions


How much of this is actual discrimination versus percieved is obviously difficult to tell, but the mood is clear - people aren't feeling comfortable working flexibly.

What managers say vs what they want

The report found that what managers actually want is somewhat different to what they say.  For instance over half of the managers surveyed regarded the ideal employee as one who is available around the clock to tend to work issues.  40% regarded the most productive employees as those without outside commitments.  And here's the clincher.  A whopping 33% said that employees that use flexible working won't advance in their organisation!


Kinda sad huh?  This is despite 8 out of 10 respondents saying that initiatives such as flexible work arrangements, dependent-care supports and wellness programs play an important or very important part in recruiting and retaining top talent, employee satisfaction and productivity.


Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress said that they "uncovered workplace trends showing employees suffer a variety of job repercussions for participating in work-life programs, even when their leaders insist they support the business value."

"This conundrum can be so oppressive that some employees go underground, resorting to 'stealth maneuvers' for managing their personal responsibilities."

If you recognise any of these behaviours in your own organisation, shame on you.  Now more than ever is the time to walk the walk rather than just talking the talk.




Interesting report Adi. What I would say is that if you work flexibly then you will need to make even more effort to get yourself noticed than someone who is "based in the office". Maybe this is the issue. I would suggest that flexible workers need to touch base often and make sure they are still noticed in the company. Of course there is also onus on their manager to be doing a good job in following up, and ensuring their employees don't feel out on a limb and forgotten.

That's a good point Vincent.  If you're working remotely you'd removed from the office politics and gossip, which may well be why people are often so productive!  It does however mean you can feel out of the loop.  As you say though, that's a failing of the manager as much as anything, both in not connecting with people, and on promoting people based on personalities rather than abilities.

Isn't this a bit like CSR?  I'm sure lots of executives say they want to conduct themselves in a green manner, but how many really believe it?  I don't think this will change until a younger generation of managers reach the top, a generation that have grown up outside of the 9-5 mantra that dogs so many senior managers.

Telecommuters say they have become happier and healthier since they were given the ability to work from home, and 76% say they're more loyal to their employer as a result, according to a Staples Advantage survey. In addition, 86% report they're more productive working from home, while 40% say they'd take a pay cut rather than give up telecommuting.

For those seeking some creative working practices, here are 10 courtesy of the Huff Post

1. Employees, at all levels, manage their own schedules and work hours to be most conducive to their personal lives, as long as these altered schedules do not impact their ability to deliver to clients or to support their coworkers.

2. With advance notice, all holidays are "floating," meaning that employees can shift or consolidate "traditional" days off such as Memorial Day or Labor Day.

3. Providing pay for traditionally unpaid leave is a great way to show a company is there for its employees, and goes a long way toward boosting commitment and retention. An Iowa-based manufacturing firm, for example, provides six weeks of paid maternity leave (the 12 weeks mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act are unpaid) as well as regular pay for bereavement and jury duty.

4. Paid sabbaticals allowing employees to pursue work-related or personal interests after a certain number of years with the company; a Colorado-based software firm, for instance, offers 6 weeks after 5 years of service.

5. Employees have the option to purchase two weeks of paid time off (PTO) every fiscal year. Additionally, donated PTO programs allow employees to donate PTO to a coworker facing a medical or other emergency.

6. This is rarer, but some companies budget so they can continue to provide much-needed salaries to workers who have exhausted their personal and vacation time due to unusual medical or other personal circumstances.

7. Forrester Research estimates that by 2016, over 40% of the total workforce will telecommute. One Virginia-based consumer services company whose workforce already telecommutes by a much greater percentage supports it in part by providing a monthly allowance for both cell phones and internet service providers (ISPs) used at home.

8. One Washington-based engineering firm engages in the growing practice of providing a fully-stocked kitchen to help busy employees maintain good nutrition - especially those working long or odd hours to complete a specific project. It keeps costs down by charging participating workers a nominal fee of $10 per week.

9. Technology companies take note: a professional services provider based in North Carolina saved the parents in its workforce a lot of time and effort by developing an iPhone app allowing them to locate and evaluate child care providers.

10. This often depends on a company's culture and physical workspace, but a number of them allow employees to bring dogs to work, and even children. More information on doing the latter successfully is available here.