Work-life balance is one of those phrases which gets used a lot without people generally stopping to consider what it really means. It has become particularly prevalent in recent times during discussions of how to work during the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, when working from home became the norm for increasing numbers of people, which impacted hugely on the work life balance of those involved. In simple terms, a good work-life balance is one where the working life is structured so that an employee is left with sufficient time and mental and physical energy to enjoy the non-working aspects of their life. In more detail, providing a good work-life balance for employees is something which benefits not only those employees in person, but also the business in question and wider society.
According to a report published in January 2020 by Deloitte, poor mental health among employees currently costs employers between £42bn and £45bn per year, while a survey carried out by Perkbox found that 79% of British adults in employment commonly experience workplace stress. In addition, figures gathered by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) quarterly Labour force Survey underline the negative impact which workplace stress can have on employees. In the table detailing types of illness made worse by work in the last 12 months, stress came out as the top category, scoring much higher in terms of prevalence and rates per 100,000 than conditions such as breathing problems, back pain and headaches. To put the size of the problem into perspective, the HSE report states that work related stress resulted in 17,909 work days being lost in a 12 month period, compared to 2,048 for breathing problems and 1,979 for back problems.
Clearly, any consideration of work-life balance written in the current climate has to take into account the way in which COVID-19 has shifted working patterns, methods and locations, and the degree to which those shifts are likely to become permanent. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the pandemic had little direct impact on the percentage of non-key workers, stating that they have too much work to carry out. In January 2020, this figure ran at 32%, while by June it had dropped slightly to 28%.
It’s relatively quick and easy to gather together statistics underlining the positive impact which working remotely during the pandemic actually had on the work-life balance of those employees in question:
- 67% of people said their work-life balance improved when they started working remotely
- 30% of people say they start and finish work earlier when working remotely during quarantine
Making the work-life balance possible
The positive impact of remote working on work-life balance (at the same time as for the wider productivity of the business) is only facilitated and possible if the technology needed to make it work practically is in place. Investing in technology of this kind is one of the key components of putting together a genuinely modern workplace, and why many struggled initially when working from home became a requirement for a significant amount of people overnight. The core concept of a modern workplace is that the ‘place’ in question, rather than being a physical entity, is actually a digital network which enables employees to work and collaborate when distributed across a wide geographical area, and despite the fact that they may be utilising a disparate range of devices. In terms of any actual physical base needed, this space will need to offer high speed internet connectivity to all employees, and the tools provided to employees will need to include those which facilitate seamless communication and collaboration. On the contrary, the blurring of the dividing line between a physical workplace and the wider concept of a shared working environment could, in theory, worsen the work-life balance of an employee by dissolving the boundaries between work and life. The key to ensuring that this isn’t the case lies in understanding the importance of the balance – particularly on the part of the employers – and building this understanding into the framework of the modern workplace. In simple terms, just because employees can be online and within reach of the workplace 24/7, doesn’t mean either that they should be or that this should be an expectation placed on them.
Tips for balancing the two
Achieving this new, modern style and ‘place’ of work may sound contradictory and difficult to implement, but it can be facilitated smoothly, quickly and with little to no impact on the business or employees. Our 7 top tips to ensuring the work-life balance is attained, while still achieving the goals of the business, will help when executing your modern workplace:
The focus of employers and employees needs to shift to different metrics of productivity. Rather than relying, as has so often been the case, on the number of hours worked as a measure of how much an employee is putting into a workplace, instead employers should look at using other measures of productivity, focusing on outcomes rather than inputs. The kind of collaborative digital tools utilised by a modern workplace, as well as making remote collaboration feasible, will also make it easier to gather and analyse the kind of data needed to forge an output focused measure of productivity.
Shop around for the collaboration tool which is best suited to the size and type of your organisation. Although the tools in question all perform essentially the same overall task – making it possible for distributed workforces to liaise as closely as if they were in the same physical space – they each include features which are either unique, or have been tweaked slightly, in order to provide a particular working environment and approach to collaboration. The options to look at include:
- SharePoint Online – cloud-based storage and collaboration tool, offering secure file sharing, document collaboration, advanced search features and data management
- Outlook Groups – part of Microsoft 365 which enables the creation of a collaboration and group chat space pulling together email, Teams, Planner, SharePoint and other aspects of Microsoft 365
- Yammer Groups – a feed which can be integrated with Outlook and OneDrive to create a feed enabling users to view and follow popular posts and leave comments. The intention of Yammer is to encourage open communication across larger groups in a manner likely to appeal to the generations which have grown up interacting with social media
- Microsoft Teams – works in a similar way to Slack, another online collaboration tool, promoting chat-based collaboration via channels, commenting and one-to-one messaging.
- To Do – a tool which users can use to break tasks down into component parts, track those tasks and share lists
- OneDrive – the Microsoft cloud storage solution which facilitates real time collaboration, off-line access, easy sharing and working across different devices
- Shifts – a Microsoft mobile app which enables users and teams to manage tasks and shifts, viewing their schedule and performing tasks such as requesting time off
- Flow – a tool which automates and streamlines workflows in a way which increases productivity
When deciding which tool or combination of tools to use, test the various options with smaller groups of employees to gain a real time impression of which offer the most benefits. In terms of work-life balance, you should be looking for those tools which, by simplifying, streamlining or even automating mundane or repetitive tasks – such as data inputting – free employees up to focus on more business critical tasks, and potentially work fewer hours without lessening productivity, and to concentrate on more rewarding aspects of their work.
Don’t allow the focus on the technology used to build a modern workplace lead to a neglect of the human factor. No matter what systems are introduced, you need to take the time to ensure that all members of your team receive adequate training in exactly how to use it. Not only will this reduce the stress which is bound to arise from being presented with new tools and not properly understanding how to use them, it will also ensure that your employees understand how to make the most of the framework created for them.
When making the shift to a modern workplace it is vital to ensure that all members of the team buy-in to the process, and this will only be achieved through clear and effective communication. Make sure that everyone, from the IT team through to the employees using the digital systems, has an understanding of what is going to change and how they will be expected to utilise the tools available to them. As well as providing the information your employees will need, ensure that the channels of communication work both ways so that employees feel able and empowered to ask questions and point out any problems which arise as the shift to a genuinely modern workplace takes place.
Create a set of goals to work towards when creating a genuinely modern workplace. In terms of work-life balance, the goal should be for employees to be able to note a genuine and positive shift in the way that they work. While metrics such as productivity and profitability may be easier to measure using fairly old school accounting methods, the work-life balance of your employees will be something which can only be genuinely ascertained through a process of communication. The kind of channels mentioned previously, which have to be put in place to facilitate the switch to a modern workplace, can also then be used to monitor the impact on employees, and to gather insights into the ways in which the digital tools chosen enable employees to maximise work-life balance.
Look out for the kind of metrics which would indicate your employees are achieving a better work life balance and improved workplace mental health. These could include:
- Time freed by automation being used for self-improvement and training, enabling employees to gain a wider skillset, and maximise their potential and offer more to the business as a whole
- The degree to which tools enabling easier real time communication remove the stress inherent in ‘traditional’ and poorer communication methods, such as email. Instant messaging and real time collaboration on projects for example, will put an end to the stress inherent in a project having to be passed back and forth between various members of a team over a prolonged period
- The easing of stress thanks to the creation of a hybrid office model. This allows employees to divide their time between working in remote locations – such as at home – and heading into the office space when needed. The ending of the daily commute is a guaranteed way of reducing stress for the majority of employees, while the fact that a physical office space still exists and can be accessed when needed, will stop employees feeling that they have to completely fend for themselves.
- A modern workplace framework which enables employees to access the ‘office’ via any device they choose will empower employees by creating a sense of control and autonomy. The work can be carried out using the device with which each employee feels the most comfortable and on which they have the most experience, while overall projects are still delivered in a coherent manner.
Having the expertise and track record needed to deliver the managed workplace service to take your business onto the next level is crucial. We work closely with you to analyse your needs and the needs of your employees, and agree a set of measurable outcomes which our solutions will be expected to deliver. Amongst these will be the kind of work life balance and employee mental health improvements outlined above, allied to increased productivity and the ability to attract the best talent in the future. At the same time as employees enjoy the mental health benefits of a genuinely modern workplace, the business leaders and management teams will benefit from the knowledge that the stress and responsibility of maintaining the workplace rests with the experts here, and that factors such as the cost of maintaining and updating the infrastructure, software and licences are factored into the plan from the start, rather than emerging as surprises at some point in the future.
The simple fact of the matter is that the modern workplace is no longer something which is expected to emerge in the future, but is instead the working environment which the best use of technology enables us to create in the here and now. Alongside this lies the fact that, according to figures quoted by mental health charity MIND, FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by over 10%. Delivering the right work life balance and an environment which promotes mental health and well-being isn’t simply a question of meeting the duty of care to your employees, it’s an approach which will deliver on the bottom line and fundamental to the work force of today.