Work-life integration: the successor to work-life balance?
Having recently completed a literature review with Robertson Cooper on work-life integration and its implications for the modern workplace – watch this space – I was intrigued to participate in a Good Day at Work lunch to explore how organisations are taking to it in the real world.
For many, work-life integration is a natural extension of work-life balance, but adapted to some of the changes and complexities of life in the 2010s. ‘Integration’ means different things to different users, but ultimately it’s about employers empowering people to choose flexible patterns of working that allow them to get the best out of their personal and professional lives. But how much headway is it making in UK businesses, and what’s supporting or impeding its progress?
The event was chaired with great insight and a lightness of touch by Professor Sir Cary Cooper and had representation from a spread of public and private sector organisations. In wide-ranging discussions over lunch, the participants got to grips with what work-life integration meant for them.
Faced with the question, ‘Is work-life integration achievable within your business?’ most felt it was desirable but for now remained an aspiration rather than something imminently achievable. Individuals at a local level within businesses had succeeded in establishing work-life integration, or something close to it, but it would be harder to apply across the whole workforce. Managers were felt to be more capable of achieving it than staff, and in small teams in places like bank branches where working hours are built around customer service, it could be tough to introduce. On the other hand, it was appreciated that there were some roles where work-life integration wasn’t just desirable, it was almost a pre-requisite. Those working in international businesses over multiple time zones, for example, would find it hard to function in conventional nine-to-five mode.
Making work-life integration happen
The debate moved on to explore what was needed to make work-life integration work effectively for the individual and the employer. One key requirement is the trust factor, and it’s likely that some line managers would struggle with the fact that they couldn’t always tell whether members of their team working remotely were actually doing work. It was suggested that there needed to be a rethinking of the psychology of the workplace, with the line manager becoming ready to trust employees working remotely, and with employees managing their work in a responsible way that met the needs of the business. Some felt an attitudinal shift was needed; one that valued delivering on tasks and hitting deadlines over how many hours went into achieving it. This is especially relevant given that the UK works the longest hours in Europe but lags way behind the rest of the G7 in terms of productivity.
It was also noted that some line managers do not have the experience or the skills to manage employees remotely. This would need to be addressed, otherwise employees could feel isolated, removed from decision-making processes or excluded from choice tasks through their absence from the office environment. From an HR perspective, flexible working is relatively straightforward to map out in policy terms, but work-life integration requires looser guidelines that place more emphasis on devolved decision making and requires a degree of individual autonomy. Finally, it was felt that work-life integration would be easier to attain at an organisational level if those at the top of the business were practicing it. This fed into the broader view that role modelling is important, especially if a business is setting out to actively encourage work-life integration.
Expectations too are important in making work-life integration successful. These need to be carefully explored and made explicit between the employee and the line manager so both parties have a shared understanding of what they are setting up, what they can expect from each other and what happens if either finds it doesn’t work.
Gender and generational issues at work
There was a broad discussion around some of the possible blockers to introducing work-life integration. One is the fact that both organisations and employees often see work-life integration as a gender issue, with the result that uptake is likely to be much higher among women. Men, meanwhile, often fear that any move toward work-life integration might negatively impact on their career.
There could also be a generational issue, with work-life integration being enthusiastically embraced by millennials, while older employees retain a preference for work-life separation. This could lead to younger workers falling foul of the more traditional views of older business leaders, or of older employees, acculturated to working ‘normal hours’, struggling to avoid feeling guilty when given freedom over the hours they work.
Helping work-life integration succeed in UK business
How then might work-life integration succeed in UK businesses? Ideally it would be led from the top; with senior champions fronting internal campaigns. But in the absence of boardroom backing it was suggested it might be achieved by stealth with individual initiatives implemented locally. As these accumulate across the business, their success could gradually influence the rest of the organisation. Others held that it may still be best to approach it formally, mounting a business case that targets key business imperatives like attrition, sickness absence and productivity.
Finally, it was recognised that many businesses want to move in the direction of work-life integration but that the success stories aren’t out there to take inspiration from. What we need is a repository of case studies from businesses that have made significant headway, that outline the approach they took and what contributed to their success. This could be a source of guidance and impetus for other businesses seeking to make similar progress. On the evidence of this debate there really does seem to be an appetite to do more on work-life integration, it’s a case of making the successes known.
All in all, a fascinating event that provided a great snapshot of the current thinking on work-life integration in UK businesses.