Work-Life Balance Requires More Than Just WFH

The American psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth was the first academic to write about an explicit connection between time, motion, and fatigue. She wrote many books and papers in this field and is considered to be a pioneer of industrial and organisational psychology. Her work created the idea of a ‘work-life balance’ and it’s almost half a century since she died.

As most people know, managing a work-life balance can be complex. The equilibrium between your personal life and your employment affects both these areas and over the past few decades an entire industry has been created, focusing on happiness at work and how to achieve the right levels of rest and leisure time balanced with efforts at work.

Work-life balance is a subject that many employers and employees have aspired to for many years. Employers believe that their employees will be more productive and engaged if this balance is improved and employees generally agree – but with so much focus on this area and such a long history of analysis, why is it still so difficult to achieve? Why aren’t those Chief Happiness Officers more effective?

The first issue is the number of variables. The government creates laws and regulations that define how people work. Employers create the job opportunities, and employees undertake those jobs. Each actor has their own set of expectations about what will make them more productive and more engaged. The reality of many modern working arrangements may also have evolved much faster than legislation can catch up – so there is often a disconnect.

Working from home (WFH) is a good example. Many employees were asked to work from home during the Covid pandemic and many are planning to continue, either full-time at home or using a hybrid model where they sometimes visit the office and sometimes stay at home. But WFH needs some preparation, so why is a desk and chair considered to be tax deductible and yet Internet access is not?

In the past year, the British tax agency HMRC has been flooded with people asking for tax deductions for all the purchases they were forced to make to ensure that their home working environment is safe, secure, and allows them to work productively.

The government doesn’t have a simple answer to these questions because nobody really expected such a dramatic shift to home working, but now we can see that many people intend to remain working from home, some clear guidance and regulations would be welcome. Government agencies, employers, and employees all need to work together to define how the future of work is going to look.

At Sensée, we believe that one of the fundamental changes is around personal control or ‘agency’ as the psychologists would define it. All our teams work at home, but they are not expected to work 8 hours a day from Monday to Friday. We empower them to self-schedule their work hours, providing greater control and flexibility to blend their personal life around work. This could be as simple as taking a couple of hours off in the afternoon to pick up the kids from school and then logging in later for a shift once everyone at home has been fed.

It sounds simple, but companies cannot just offer this flexibility overnight. It’s not just the fact that someone works from home that defines their job as flexible, it is also how the employer allows the employee to manage some of the parameters around when and where they are working. This idea of flexible workforce management is where the process can really evolve and improve – both for employers (who can benefit from higher employee engagement and productivity, and lower attrition) and employees (who frequently cite a better work-life balance as well as benefitting by losing the travel to and from work).

Work-life balance studies have been taking place for almost a century, but at the end of the day it is not working from home alone that creates flexibility. Employers and governments need to recognise this if we are going to create a new framework for how modern companies operate and look after their people.

How Will Companies Manage The Transition From WFH To Hybrid?

Each day is now bringing more positive news about the end of the pandemic. Although there are still concerns about the variants, the situation is far better than a year ago when we had no vaccines and idea how long the crisis would run for.

Many governments, including here in the UK, are now actively working on plans that should see a a new phase where the public is expected to remain cautious, but the various lockdowns, restrictions, and mask mandates will all be relaxed. The next key date for the UK is July 19th. After this date, the government will remove all Covid restrictions and this includes the advice to work from home, although the PM Boris Johnson has said that it will be up to individual companies to decide on whether to recall everyone to the office or to continue some home working – there will no longer be any direction from Whitehall.

Naturally this is going to have a big impact on companies and the use of offices. Every office-based employee moved to a work-from-home (WFH) environment in March 2020 and now the discussion is focused on how to return to the office. Naturally, when there was a crisis, it was easy to mandate that everyone has to work from home. Now that we are seeing an end to restrictions, the situation is less clear cut. The government is making it clear that they are now leaving it up to employers.

Last month, the British government announced a flexible working taskforce to explore all the potential future options. One of the suggested ideas was a default right to work from home – so all office-based employees would automatically have the right to tell their employer where they plan to work from.

The situation is fairly confusing, because this taskforce is just exploring ideas – these are not new rules or regulations yet. Many companies, including most of the tech giants, have announced that they will permanently embrace flexible working. Many of their employees enjoyed the increased flexibility of WFH and want to keep it as an option. So if you work for Salesforce or Twitter then it’s likely that you can pick and choose the days that you spend time in the office and time at home.

Spotify is a good example, because they have at least thought about it carefully. They will repurpose all their office estate so employees have office facilities, but it may not look like it did before the pandemic – individual desks for use by one person are probably now entering the history books.

But the confusion over this return to the office demonstrates that the creation of a productive and positive network of home-based workers is about far more than just connecting people together on Slack and allowing them to work anywhere.

The most recent Harvard Business Review podcast features some thoughtful suggestions from Professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University. Professor Bloom has studied the economic effect of home working for several years and he makes some valid points in the podcast. These include the problems of managing real estate use if employees have complete freedom over when and where they work. Also, the difficulties of planning meetings where some team members are on Teams or Zoom and some are crowded together in a meeting room.

Professor Bloom advises that companies will probably need to mandate the days that can be used as home working days – either at a company level or with individual team managers deciding. Either way, for meetings to run effectively he believes that everyone should be entirely remote or all in-person.

Whether you agree or not, what Professor Bloom is pointing out is the danger of a twin-track workforce. He argues that, when everyone works from home, it is more likely that their performance is measured on output – i.e. what do they deliver? Once some team members are visible back in the office then the old problems of judging people based on perceived effort, hours at the desk, and who has lunch with which manager all come back into view. The playing field is no longer level.

It takes effort to make a fully remote team work well together because it is about more than just the process. It requires organisations to adopt a virtual mindset across everything that they do – from recruitment to training, management, security and scheduling.  It also requires them to recognise the importance of flexible working and self-scheduling to  enable homeworkers to enjoy an improved work-life balance.

At Sensée we’ve been focused on WFH since 2004 – long before the pandemic arrived – so these are issues that we’re very familiar with.  Nevertheless, the point should not be lost.  The key question for many organisations is no longer ‘how do we make homeworking work?’ it is ‘how do we make hybrid working work?’ And that calls for a whole new mindset.