When it comes to work-life balance, talking the talk and walking the walk are very different things. It’s not for want of trying but all too often work-life balance becomes an empty promise.
HR get frustrated as your efforts to promote a healthy balance fall flat. While employees get unhappier as they stay chained to their desk. Where they believe you secretly want them, even when you’ve said the opposite.
Keep reading to discover how to break that cycle, to drive real change and build a culture of work-life balance that actually results in better work-life balance.
1 - Be clear about why
Before you go a single step further, you and your team need to be 100% committed to this work-life balance malarkey. You need to know why work-life balance matters if you’re going to successfully champion it. So here’s a quick refresher.
Increase individual productivity - your people are more productive in-office when they’ve had time out-of-office. Fresh ideas need breathing space.
Increase team productivity – The Mental Health Foundation found 27% of people working long hours feel depressed, 34% feel anxious and 58% feel irritable. Not conducive to positive working relationships. Reduce those feelings and teamwork will prosper.
Improve retention – your people stay with you longer because they’re happier and more fulfilled. They feel they’re achieving in their career, not reaching burnout.
Make hiring easier – when your culture genuinely promotes work-life balance, that truth becomes an integral part of your employer brand. Which makes your talent brand more competitive, so you attract better people, faster.
Boost diversity – work-life balance makes your company accessible and attractive to great people you might otherwise have alienated, like the family-minded. The best people aren’t always the ones who love the 9-to-5.
Now memorize that list. So when you get pushback from harried employees who wear stress as a badge of honor, you’ve got a persuasive arsenal at your fingertips.
2 - Practice what you preach
Employees often don’t appreciate how much work HR does behind the scenes to keep everyone happy and productive. But one thing that definitely does get noticed is your behavior in – and out – of the office.
You can tell employees to leave at 5.30pm and take their full holiday allowance until the cows come home. But if you’re regularly at your desk until 8pm and never take holiday, they won’t believe you. Or if you take holiday but continue sending emails to the whole office while you’re away.
Your behavior sets an expectation, even if you don’t mean it to. So even if you’re a total workaholic, you can’t build a culture of work-life balance unless you live it yourself. And trust us, you’ll be glad you did.
3 - Secure executive buy-in
To improve work-life balance in your business, make it a major strategic priority rather than a bullet point on the HR agenda. For many (if not most) businesses this is a major cultural change; treat it accordingly. Which means you’ll need buy-in and support from the executive team, to drive change from the top. Balance starts in the boardroom.
They’ll need to be a role model for work-life balance, but it’s more than that. Deloitte’s Global Research Director, Dr. Ajit Kambil, is right to observe, ‘culture is like an iceberg’.
For Kambil, executives are the engine that drive cultural change – ‘unfreezing’ old beliefs and assumptions, driving change by setting, communicating and modelling new behaviors and outcomes, then ‘refreezing’ the organization to lock in that new culture through reinforcement.
To effectively cement a culture of work-life balance, you need the C-suite to power the initiative; not just agree with it.
4 - Train managers to spot and counter burnout
Promoting work-life balance isn’t enough. You have to ensure employees take you up on the offer. Otherwise it’s like bringing the best-ever muffins into the office every day only for nobody to eat them. You waste time baking and your people are still hungry: lose, lose.
You won’t create a culture of work-life balance unless you define what that looks like and the behaviors it entails. For some businesses, work-life balance might only mean encouraging vacation. Actual vacation. Not lying on the beach with a laptop or making calls sipping Sangria, as two thirds of us do. For others, it’ll mean flexi-time, or job sharing, or work-from-home initiatives.
Your aim is to narrow down from ‘we want a better work-life balance’ to ‘we want to bring our culture of work-life balance to life by ensuring employees take – and enjoy – their vacation’.
Then you communicate those expectations clearly to employees. If you try to initiate change without being clear about what you expect, you’ll be right back at the uneaten muffin scenario.
Finally you reinforce the behaviors you want, so employees know you’re not just saying that. Like Daimler, who offer to auto-delete all employees emails while they’re on vacation, so they arrive back to an empty inbox. Or you could try limiting how many vacation days employees can ‘roll-over’ annually, for instance, or locking the office over weekends unless employees can justify coming in.
The point is, decide which work-life balance initiatives matter to you, set clear expectations and reinforce them. So employees know this isn’t a trap.
6 - Be flexible and create space for individuality
There’s reinforcing expectations then there’s setting rigid rules. Banning after-work emails (á la Volkswagen) or enforcing super strict office hours isn’t necessarily the best route. In fact, the ideas of discipline and enforcement are generally at odds with the work-life balance premise.
Because work-life balance isn’t just about encouraging employees to take more time off. It’s deeper than that. It’s about giving employees more space to be themselves, so they can bring more to the table in the workplace.
Which means work-life balance is, at its heart, about flexibility and individualism. Maybe I love taking 30-minutes at 10pm to clear my inbox after the kids have gone to bed. Maybe you prefer to get to the office 30-minutes early to do the same. The best work-life balance initiative recognizes and creates space for that individuality, while still promoting balanced behaviors.
7 - Create a conversation
This ties into the above, because work-life balance shouldn’t be dictatorial. Instead, encourage employees to talk openly about their own needs, feedback and challenges in becoming more balanced. Because work-life balance isn’t just an organizational problem. It’s an individual challenge.
In other words, you might be surprised to find employees aren’t leaping at the chance to eat your muffins. They might need some help to overcome their own habits (like disconnecting from technology, for example) and think differently about work. And that demands a conversation, not a top-down series of rules.
8 - Onboard new hires into your work-life culture, fast
There’s no point being transparent with your current employees if new hires aren’t also aboard the work-life balance train. Which means your employee onboarding program has work to do.
Think about your own onboarding process. If it focusses purely on sharing explicit information about working with you – rules, regulations, processes and people – then it’s not quite where it should be. Which is most businesses, given that 35% of companies spend zero dollars onboarding and of those who do, 30% are ‘passive’, with onboarding seen as a simple checklist of reactive tasks.
Instead, the best onboarding is cultureboarding – and culture is really about a series of implicit assumptions, beliefs and behaviors. That’s the difference between ‘working hours are 9am to 5pm’ and ‘most people leave the office at 5pm but the office won’t be empty until 6pm’. Or ‘you get 30-days holiday’ and ‘we encourage everyone to take 30-days holiday - and stay off email while you're there’
Work-life balance isn’t a buzzword and it shouldn’t just be an HR line item. It’s an integral part of your culture, and manifests itself at every level of the business from the CEO to new hires. HR must address every touchpoint throughout the employee lifecycle to set, cement and grow this culture effectively.