Core magazine: Millennials tip the scales

02 February 2017

  • Exclusive article from Warwick Business School's magazine Core
  • WBS academic says employers need to talk about work-life balance
  • Shainaz Firfiray argues work-life balance particularly important to millennials
  • Such policies can encourage commitment to employers she believes

Employers who want to attract more job applicants – particularly younger ones – should talk about their work-life balance policies when recruiting, suggests research by Shainaz Firfiray.

The WBS academic’s experimental study involving 189 MBA students aged between 26 and 40 found that people were more likely to apply for a job that promised flexibility than for an equivalent role offering healthcare benefits – or no benefits at all.

“There is already a lot of anecdotal evidence and research suggesting that many employees have difficulties managing work as well as their personal commitments,” says Firfiray, an Associate Professor of Organisation and HRM. “The last European Quality of Life Survey found that 22 per cent of people in employment are not satisfied with their work-life balance.”

Related course: Full-time MBA

Given this it is hardly surprising that companies who make a point of promising to help employees find that balance have an advantage over their peers.

Despite this, few companies that offer such benefits mention them on the recruitment pages of their websites.

“If they did mention it they would find that putting up even a small amount of information might help them to attract more applicants,” says Firfiray.

Another finding of Firfiray’s research was that work-life benefits were more popular with ‘millennials’ – people who reached adulthood around the turn of the century – compared to members of Generation X – generally seen as those born between the 1960s and the early 1980s.

“As people get older they may have more healthcare needs and therefore be more attracted to healthcare benefits,” she says. “Future research could work to isolate the effects of age and other demographic factors.”

It also suggests employers could do more in the meantime to look at how to tailor the benefits they offer to the specific needs of the demographics they are targeting with their recruitment advertising.

Related article: Flexible working is not just for parents

But getting new employees through the door is only the first part of the process, which is why Firfiray’s latest research examines what happens next. What she found suggests organisations that want to take full advantage of the business benefits of their work-life balance policies need to do more than put them on their websites or include them in the employee handbook.

Such policies can mean employees feel more committed to their employer and therefore less likely to leave – avoiding all the associated costs of staff turnover – but only if managers endorse and support them.

“Work-life balance policies attract potential employees, but they do not make them more likely to stay on unless they can see the policies are supported by the organisation and by their direct supervisor,” says Firfiray. “Employees need to feel confident that taking advantage of such a policy will not harm their career prospects.”

In other words, they need to be reassured that it is okay to actually use the policy.

“This means that work-life balance policies have to be accompanied by a change in organisational culture,” says Firfiray. “There needs to be greater openness about discussing the needs of employees as well as those of the organisation, and the assurance that the policies won’t create any negative outcomes in terms of careers.”

This level of change will often require employers to make a significant cultural shift in order to convince staff – including the managers whose endorsement is critical to employees’ trust – that this support of work-life balance is genuine.

Entrepreneur Lizzie Penny, however, has taken a somewhat different view. The WBS graduate argues that real work-life balance requires not simply a cultural change, but a structural one.

“It needs the sort of radical change that only entrepreneurs are confident to do at this stage,” says Penny.

She is speaking from experience. In 2009 she set up a marketing agency called Futureproof. For a number of years it operated on traditional agency lines, eventually growing to 30 employees, but in May last year it became a fascia of The Hoxby Collective, a flexible working community, who provide outsource support functions of which she is co-founder and joint chief executive.

Related course: MSc Human Resources Management & Employment Relations

Penny no longer has employees, instead “curating teams” of individuals, who take on projects on behalf of The Hoxby Collective’s clients. Those individuals come in the form of roughly 125 freelance associates in 12 countries; 18 of Futureproof’s former employees – made redundant when Penny changed the model – are among them.

It also has a number of self-employed equity ‘partners’ who, between them, own a quarter of the business and share in its profits.

And it is always profitable, says Penny, as it makes a margin on the day rates charged by each associate.

“We make a profit every month, clients get exceptional value and all associates set their own day rate, so they are getting paid exactly what they think they deserve,” she said. Associates, who are free to take on projects for other clients, can also choose when and how they work, whether that is term-time only, a day or two per week, evenings only – whatever suits them. Real work-life balance means having the ability to fit work around life, not the other way around, says Penny.

“Everyone is freelance or self-employed,” she says. “We believe that people can only truly get a proper work-life balance by being their own boss. We also think that, while self-employment is on the rise, it comes with some challenges. It can be quite isolating and you can’t deal with big businesses because of their payment terms.”

Penny is quick to explain, however, that The Hoxby Collective is more than a platform connecting freelances to clients. Associates are screened before being added to their roster, as the business vouches for their work. And each project is assigned to a team of people rather than one person; it is the only way to make sure that both the client’s needs and individual worker’s work-life balance choices can be met at the same time.

The end result is good for workers, for the partnership and for the business that use its services, argues Penny.

Maybe the future of balancing work and life will not be shaped just by changing job advertising, but by changing the nature of work itself.

Shainaz Firfiray teaches Organisational Behaviour on the Distance learning MBA and Human Resource Management on the Full-time MBA. She also teaches Managing Human Resources in the MSc Human Resources Management & Employment Relations.

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