How important is work-life balance to employees?

02 April 2019

  • Work-life balance is increasingly important for employees
  • Companies can devise work-life balance policies to attract talent
  • Firms have to follow up policies with changing their culture as well
  • Millennials put work-life balance high on list of job priorities

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.

Dr Firfiray’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 Dr Firfiray. “A recent European Quality of Life Survey found that 22 per cent of people in employment are not satisfied with their work-life balance.”

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 Dr Firfiray.

Another finding of Dr 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.

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.”

Related course: MSc Human Resource Management & Employee Relations

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 Warwick Business School 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 Lizzie.

She is speaking from experience. In 2014 she set up The Hoxby Collective, an organisation that champions ‘workstyle’ and facilitates each of its ‘Hoxbies’ working where and when they choose.

The Hoxbies are judged on their output alone, and between them deliver projects for Amazon, Unilever, Merck, AIA and Anglian Water, as well as a myriad of smaller clients.

Hoxby has no employees, instead “curating teams” of individuals from its 600-strong team across 29 countries.

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 Lizzie, as it makes a margin on the total project fee charged to clients.

“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 deserve,” she says.

How flexible working can be harnessed by companies

All associates also work independently of Hoxby whether on personal clients or their own businesses, and importantly they all 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 your work around your life, not the other way around, says Lizzie.

“Everyone is self-employed,” she says. “We believe that people can only truly achieve their perfect work-life balance by being their own boss.

“We also think that, while self-employment is on the rise, it comes with some challenges which we are always seeking to overcome at Hoxby; it can be quite isolating which we address through our lively and friendly Slack community (some people join the community simply for our ‘watercooler’!) and individuals can’t deal with big businesses because of their payment terms whereas through Hoxby they can.”

Lizzie is quick to explain, however, that The Hoxby Collective never connects freelances to clients. Associates are screened before being added to their roster - they have had over 15,000 applications so far - as they are then representatives of the business.

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.

 

Shainaz Firfiray is Associate Professor of Organisation and Human Resource Management and teaches Managing Human Resources on the MSc Human Resource Management & Employee Relations. She also lectures on Current Issues in Leadership on the suite of MSc Business courses and Foundations of Organisational Behaviour on the Undergraduate programme.

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