Maintaining a healthy work-life balance depends on commitment from both the employee and the employer, say Ioana Lupu, Associate Professor at ESSEC Business School France and Mayra Ruiz-Castro, Sr. Lecturer at the University of Roehampton, UK. On last week’s Talent Experience Live, they discussed shifting perspectives among at-home workers and what that means for employers.
The prominence of work-life balance is here to stay for many organizations, but how can they maximize productivity and wellbeing among employees? The long-simmering issue sits on the forefront of HR, but the right approach and communication plan have yet to be determined.
Work-life balance should be sustainable, and many employers see it as a problem they're trying to solve. Continuous work-life balance is possible, say Lupu and Ruiz-Castro in their research-based Harvard Business Review article (which includes their work on the effects of Covid-19 on work habits and employer responses).
Watch the full TXL episode with Lupu and Ruiz-Castro in the video below, or read on for key takeaways! You'll hear sustainable recommendations for work-life balance, as well as attitudes and activities employers should explore.
What we learned from the pandemic: A different approach is possible
Remote work was unthinkable for many companies at first. But when the majority of the workforce transitioned to places other than the office to do their jobs — and leaders saw new levels of productivity — they eventually learned that virtual operations were possible after all, according to Lupu.
“Surprisingly, many, many companies were already prepared for this jump to working from home, so it wasn’t [about] the technological obstacles. They really were equipped to have teams working from home,” she said. “It was mostly a cultural obstacle. Many people thought it wasn’t acceptable and feared being sanctioned or penalized in their careers, or not being considered committed workers.”
Just as organizations couldn’t imagine their teams working from home, employees themselves didn’t consider a different way of working, either — until they had to. The pandemic opened workers’ eyes to new ways of performing their jobs and meeting expectations.
“People now realize that work-life balance is not something that is unattainable, or a ‘nice-to-have, or some sort of privilege,'" Ruiz-Castro said.
As employees grow their awareness of better work-life balance, companies' should respond similarly by offering alternative approaches and means to work, she added.
Considerations for global organizations
Attitudes about work-life balance, including hours and vacation policies, vary from country to country. “We have to distinguish between organizational culture and national culture. Both are strong forces,” Ruiz-Castro said.
National cultures influence the understanding of and approach to work-life balance. For example, France has a strong national culture that prioritizes work-life balance, where labor laws cap the number of hours employees can be required to work per day and per week.
On the other hand, the U.S. values autonomy, in which workers self-govern their effort in meeting expectations and accomplishing goals. They often put in long hours of work to make success possible.
Contrasts like these can impact arrangements companies make for employees in different countries where work-life balance beliefs and cultures aren't the same.
Work-life balance messaging: From flexibility to wellbeing
Ruiz-Castro's current research targets the impact of Covid-19 on work habits. Her studies include speaking with employees who say their main concern has shifted away from flexibility to well-being and health.
“The emphasis went from ‘how many hours or days a week do you want to work to balance work and life’ to ‘let’s make sure you’re alright,'" she said. "Let’s protect your well-being and health."
For example, some managers are sending messages to employees that encourage them to take breaks as needed. Additionally, many companies are implementing policies that control when meetings can, or cannot, take place. For some, that means no meetings are allowed during lunchtime, and that a 10-minute break is required between each meeting. It's important for employees to get up and move around during the day, and regular breaks promote well-being.
Some employers are also offering yoga, pilates, mental wellness-focused activities, and sending employees wellness packages, Ruiz-Carlos said.
Working from home: Balancing the positive with the negative
Formulating new policies on flexible work hours takes more than one step. First, organizations must understand that there are positive and negative impacts of fluid work schedules, and that various employee groups are affected in different ways.
As part of Ruiz-Castro and Lupu's ongoing research on employee perspectives of working from home, they have uncovered trends in the benefits and drawbacks of remote work.
Many employees who work from home report feeling more focused than at the office, which enables them to get more done in a shorter amount of time. They also say they appreciate the ability to interweave things like housework and supermarket runs into their workday. “They feel they’re able to be more autonomous regarding work and their personal life,” Ruiz-Castro said.
A commonly mentioned negative impact of remote work is the feeling of isolation. Ruiz-Castro finds newer members of the workforce are missing out on face-to-face learning activities with their colleagues, and remote workers don't always feel properly trained or rooted in company culture.
Employees also report working longer hours in response to hyper-visibility. Apps like Microsoft Teams and Slack enable colleagues to communicate and stay connected, but it also allows managers to see who is actively online.
“In response to these demands for hyper-visibility, they try to adapt some strategies to render themselves more visible. Some of that may be around working more hours and showing more availability,” Lupu said.
Reaching "optimal busyness"
Throughout her research, Lupu has identified three general levels of what she calls “temporal experiences” that employees tend to navigate between:
Extreme busyness: Employees feel overburdened by being excessively busy. They feel out of control and errors increase.
Optimal busyness: The moment when employees feel they’ve achieved balance. They’re meeting deadlines and feel autonomous and stimulated.
Boredom: Productivity lags and employees feel under-stimulated by work.
The takeaway? If employers can find a way to help employees understand and achieve that desired "optimal-busyness" level, productivity and happiness should soar.
Managers’ role in helping employees find a balance
Managers are a key factor in the work-life balance equation. “There must be a stronger sense of responsibility for employees’ well-being, especially during these times,” Ruiz-Castro said.
Encourage acts of self-care
According to Ruiz-Castro, managers should make it a point to simply ask employees if they’ve done something for themselves, as part of their supporting well-being and balance.
“If they want their employees to feel happy, and be productive and in balance, that’s something that managers can do," she said.
Provide frequent feedback (but don’t overdo it)
Leaders can help boost employee engagement and increase productivity by giving feedback regularly rather than here-and-there throughout the year, leading up to an annual review.
“One thing is sure — and we see this trend accelerating — we’re moving away from this kind of outdated annual or bi-annual feedback, or evaluation with teams toward more continuous feedback, almost real-time feedback on performance," Lupu said. "This trend can go in a very, very good direction."
But she cautioned that it can go too far. “How much is too much? How much goes beyond the limits of what’s good for employees?”
It's important to always offer sincere support. “Attention to employees’ well-being has to be genuine. If it’s just a box-ticking exercise, employees of course won’t like that. Employees are not naïve. They know when it’s genuine care and when it’s in the interest of profits,” Ruiz-Carlos said.
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