According to the new book Work-life advantage by Dr Al James, which is published today by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), the provision of working arrangements that meaningfully improve the work-life balance of employees also enhances firms’ competitive advantage.
The societal and moral significance of successfully integrating paid work with other meaningful parts of life is profound. However, many employers remain sceptical, and view work-life balance provision as merely an extra cost to the firm, and the luxury of a booming economy.
Based on 10 years of research with over 300 IT workers at 150 different high-tech companies in the UK and Ireland, Dr James (Newcastle University) found that progress in employers providing comprehensive suites of work-life arrangements remains uneven, resulting in continuing hardship for many employees and ongoing gender inequalities in the labour market. In particular, Dr James’ research revealed that half of women working in IT in Dublin and a third of those in Cambridge are unsatisfied with their work-life balance.
However, Dr James also found that employer interventions that meaningfully improve the work-life balance of employees enhance firms’ learning and innovation capacities, and long-term sustainable competitive advantage. Not least by reducing the number of women who choose not to return to work after maternity leave.
Providing greater flexibility in scheduling when work is done, whilst not decreasing the total number of work hours (eg flexitime, annualised hours or compressed work weeks), is the most common offer from employers, but one size does not fit all.
Dr James said: “While flexitime allows workers to rejig the temporal pattern of hours worked, this merely addresses what for many workers is a symptom of work‐life conflict rather than its underlying causes, which include total hours worked and lengthy commutes. Offering a comprehensive menu of options including greater flexibility in where work is done, a reduction in total hours worked, and assistance with childcare alongside flexible hours generates mutual gains for employer and employee.”
When able to make use of their preferred employer-provided work-life balance arrangements, 94% of the workers surveyed felt less stressed at work. In addition, 79% reported greater engagement with their work and 78% said they were able to think more creatively at work. And the figures are even higher for working parents with young families, with 82% reporting greater engagement and 84% able to think more creatively.
Dr James shows that this improved employee engagement and creativity translates into improved productivity, with 61% of managers reporting a positive impact as a result of providing a range of work-life balance options. Managers also reported benefits in terms of workforce diversity and female skills retention, consistent with measured improvements in firm performance across multiple metrics.
“The results highlight the irony of employers rolling back work-life provision in pursuit of short-term savings. There is an urgent need for more comprehensive employer‐provided work‐life balance packages that respond to the variations in employees’ requirements according to their role, household situation, caring responsibilities and personal life interests. These are not merely costs, they provide major advantages for competitive performance”, said Dr James.
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