THE MT WORK LIFE SURVEY: Greater expectations - Things have changed since we brought managers into the thick of the work/life debate with our first survey into staff attitudes in 1998. Today, achieving a proper balance is seen as an entitlement by almost

THE MT WORK LIFE SURVEY: Greater expectations - Things have changed since we brought managers into the thick of the work/life debate with our first survey into staff attitudes in 1998. Today, achieving a proper balance is seen as an entitlement by almost

by MAUREEN RICE
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Three years is a long time in the new world of work. In 1998 we published 'The Great Work/Life Debate', a groundbreaking study of issues surrounding work/life balance. It painted a worrying picture of a senior-level workforce profoundly disaffected with many of the structures and demands of work, and the price they paid for their careers in personal time and family life. The emotional responses were surprisingly - even shockingly - strong: frustration, exhaustion and resentment were more deeply felt and widely spread than most employers had reckoned with. How are managers and professionals feeling today? Has anything changed? Has the speed of change in all areas of work - from technology to the 24/7 service culture - translated into different working relationships and models?

Using our original 1998 survey as the benchmark, we teamed up once again with Ceridian Performance Partners, a leading international provider of corporate work/life consulting and services, to find out. As in our previous annual surveys, we invited professionals and managers from all over the country and across all sectors to answer questions about their attitudes to work, and the reality of their daily lives. The results are encouraging and intriguing. And, as we move to phase two of the debate, they provide some surprising signposts for organisations and individuals trying to create a blueprint for new ways of working.

First, some good news: there's evidence that the long-hours culture is levelling off and even improving. In 1998, 52.5% of the managers surveyed worked 41-50 hours a week. This year, that proportion has fallen slightly to 50%; and whereas those working a marathon 50-plus hours made up a quarter in 1998, they are only a fifth in 2001. There has been a significant increase in the numbers who work 37 hours or less in an average week - up from 21% in 1998 to 30% this year. Most managers still work a five-day week, but those who work six days has halved and the small minority who work four days or less has risen by more than 60%.

Although most of our managers still work a longer week than the national average (around 40 hours for men and 34 hours for women), they largely feel that this is justified by their high level of responsibility, and close to 70% feel that they have at least reasonable control over their hours of work.

But this is where things become slightly more confused and a lot more interesting. Cutting back on hours in the office - and even introducing flexible working schedules - is not having the expected effect on relieving pressure and improving the sense of balance. A whopping three-quarters of respondents report that their workload pressure has increased over the past three years, and almost half say they have less time now for personal pursuits such as sports or study. The number of managers who feel they have been forced to put work before home and family life is slightly up.

More than a third of our managers report that flexible work options are now, in theory, on offer at their organisation, but only a minority believe that taking them up would not be career-limiting in practice. And anyway, well over half report that flexible working doesn't solve the problem of workload. And there, apparently, go two of the sacred cows of the work/life movement. If a 'manageable' working week and flexible work policies don't help, what will? Have work/life campaigners - and the Government - been barking up the wrong tree? What do overworked managers want?

This apparent contradiction - shorter hours but greater pressure - reflects just how far the work/life agenda has drilled its way into our collective consciousness. Three years ago the phrase was a semi-academic term, and we talked about 'opening a debate about work/life balance'. Today, it's part of the lingua franca of our corporate and cultural life, and 'balance' is no longer expressed as a furtive desire but as an entitlement. And that in turn is a reflection of the changing contract between organisations and individuals.

We have shifted into the age of human capital. What an organisation produces is often nothing more than what comes directly out of the heads of its employees, which makes those employees valued equals rather than just hired help. At the same time, technology has given individuals the tools to work and create for themselves. In our recent industrial past, the machines that made things were huge and expensive, so only the company owned them. The machines that make things in our new knowledge and service economy are laptops, modems and mobile phones. We can all afford them and carry them around with us. Our skills - and the means of applying them - are portable and eminently marketable and demand for them exceeds supply. We aren't prepared to put up and shut up any more, especially since the traditional rewards of lifelong security, steady progress and a gold clock are no longer available to buy our uninterrupted service and compliance. So we ask for what we want, and we expect to be paid attention to - and so we are. The Government's new working directives are being incorporated in HR policies all over the country, along with enlightened add-ons such as sabbaticals and flexible working.

But, although these may be a start, they don't relieve the pressures and frustrations of work, and they aren't delivering the kind of work/life balance we want. This is partly because increased flexibility comes with the condition that we meet the same outputs - do the maths - and partly because it is being grafted on to the old model that sees work as the main focus of our lives and 'grants' us concessions that 'allow' us to enjoy more home and leisure time.

In the 21st century, there are two fundamental flaws with that model. One, we don't want our bosses or the Government to decide which benefits and concessions we should have; we want to select for ourselves and implement them personally, not according to an HR manual. Work/life balance means different things to different people, and 'individually tailored packages' topped the list of preferred benefits for the majority of our survey; this was followed by training and education; flexible leave was in third place.

Calvin Hanks, a 29-year-old centre services director from Buckinghamshire, left a successful career as a hotel manager precisely because there was no employer in his own field who could match his own definition of flexible working. 'The hotel industry offers a version of flexible working, but it isn't really flexible at all. It will be the choice to work 9-3, or 3-9 or 9-12. And once you make your choice, that's your working pattern every day. After the birth of my son, I wanted to be able to set my own working hours on a day-to-day basis. I might work long days some times, but if my son has chicken pox I might decide to work from home a couple of days. And I want to be free to decide that as and when it suits me.'

The only way for Hanks to find that level of flexibility and personal autonomy was to change his job and his life. He now works for a Christian charity at 60% of his previous salary, but his son stays in the on-site nursery (where his wife also works). He never works more than 40 hours a week, and he decides where he needs to be and when. 'I do miss the buzz of my old career, but now I'm selling my skills for the reward that means most to me.'

Jill Carling, on the other hand, still works a 60-hour week as a retail marketing director. She chose extra holidays when negotiating her own benefits package. 'I'm not a parent, I'm the principle breadwinner in my relationship and I love my job. I prefer to work when I'm working, and switch off when I'm not. If I left work early every day I'd feel frustrated at what I hadn't finished and I'd spend those extra hours off thinking about it. I prefer to compartmentalise my work and my time off. That's the kind of flexibility I want.'

The second problem is that many organisations - and work/ life campaigners - have been too narrowly focused on time away from the job as the way to relieve pressure and achieve a sense of balance, when it is at least as important to make time at the job more productive and rewarding. As Professor Theodore Zeldin, the Oxford university historian, philosopher and management expert, has argued: 'The jobs that exist today don't correspond to the kind of humans we've become.' He argues for making jobs so engaging that the lines between work and leisure become blurred.

David Hicks, a 35-year-old freelance consultant in the retail, leisure and media industries, is one of a new breed of managers who agree strongly with Professor Zeldin and are prepared to be radically active in recreating their working lives. 'After 13 years in corporate life (as a marketing director), I came up against a serious values clash.' His own core values - of creativity and innovation - weren't being met in his job, 'but I didn't know of any other job where they could be met. So I decided to employ myself.'

As a freelance, he chooses the projects he takes on and when and where he works. He leaves himself more time for his private passions of photography (he exhibits and sells his work) and teaching kids to windsurf. He elaborates: 'You need confidence to work this way, but increasingly we work longer and harder, and work has to be about more than just money. Work expresses us as people. If they want us to work this hard, it has to be worth it.'

This desire for work to be more meaningful and personally rewarding appears to be spreading. Asked to choose from a menu of options for 'new ways of working', our managers voted overwhelmingly for more speed, transparency and flexibility. More than half chose faster decisionmaking as their first preference for new ways of working. In second place was more openness, suggesting that the management trend towards adult/adult relationships that replaced old-style paternalism has a way to go; and, in third place, they would like to work in smaller teams of fewer but better people. Only after these choices did flexible working make the list, demonstrating that it is still important, but it is by no means the priority - or the panacea - we might have thought.

Another reason for this may lie in a growing sense of autonomy at work. Most managers already have flexibility there - working from home on odd days, leaving early for Sports Day without special dispensation - and don't consider it a perk so much as a gradual mind-shift. Our first survey portrayed a stressed-out workforce that largely felt stuck with their unbalanced lives. Today, there are real signs that managers are taking personal responsibility for their work/life balance, and attitudes are changing.

In 2001, parents are far less likely to put up with the misery of missing their children growing up. The percentage has plunged from a quarter in 1998 to less than a tenth, although there has been a slight increase in those postponing or foregoing parenthood for the sake of their career, and many parents may feel forced to make the kind of radical changes that Hicks has chosen.

In 1998, almost 60% said they would not be willing to accept less money as the price of more time for their personal lives. In 2001, that proportion has dropped to 53.6%, with almost a third of women and a quarter of men being willing to trade pay for time.

This year, three-quarters of our respondents were male, and just over a quarter female - a big increase on 1998, when only 14.3% of the replies came from women. The gender divide remains in some areas: women report both greater workload pressure and greater job satisfaction than men, and men are twice as likely as women to prefer more traditional ways of working. But some older gender assumptions have been overturned. Asked if organisations would be more flexible with women in charge, only 16.3% agreed.

If our 1998 survey lifted the lid on the extent of our unhappiness with our work/life balance, our new survey reveals that we want to think big about the structure of our working lives, far beyond tinkering with the time we leave the office. And we don't trust the Government to help us out - more than half our respondents felt that government initiatives to improve work/life balance are either unlikely or not very likely to succeed - however well meant. Even so, nearly 70% felt that employers and organisations should be the ones driving change, while 33% felt it was up to individuals.

One of the biggest barriers to change for those organisations and individuals alike is that the kind of progress we want is radical, and requires a new set of standards and skills. We want nothing less than to be given personal responsibility to perform our work in whatever way suits us best.

But that depends on all those new, soft and squishy notions like trust and empowerment, which are difficult to legislate for and almost impossible to measure. It isn't just our Satanic overlords who need to develop their EQ for the new world of work - our survey revealed some fascinating but damning results in the different ways we perceive ourselves at work compared with our staff and bosses.

The overwhelming majority of our managers - nearly 88% - say they are committed at work, and more than 80% describe their boss in the same way. Less than 60%, however, are equally convinced of their staff's commitment. Nearly 96% see themselves as trustworthy at work, and three-quarters feel their staff are completely trustworthy. The number who would trust their boss, however, drops to 62.6%. When it comes to flexibility - either in terms of personal adaptability to change or flexible working schedules - our survey revealed similar differences in the ways our managers see themselves and the people they work with. Three-quarters of our respondents consider themselves completely receptive to change at work. Only half think their boss is equally receptive, and even fewer - less than 30% - believe their staff are.

This personal paradox is one of the biggest barriers to change in the workplace. If we're still stuck in old 'us and them' responses to our bosses and staff, it's fair to assume that most of them are similarly stuck. The job of an enlightened HR department in the 21st century is to develop tools that help break down those responses and build genuine adult/adult relationships throughout the organisation. Those tools might begin with surveys and audits to measure levels of trust, autonomy and responsibility, and workshops, courses, information and support to help people develop them. Without those, we're stuck with a case of same book, different chapter, and all the flexible working in the world won't create the kind of deep change our managers are looking for.

Copies of the survey 'Work/Life Balance: Whose Move Is It Next?' are available from Khyla McBride (tel: 020 8267 4956; e-mail: Khyla.McBride@haynet.com)

[QQ]In balancing your work life and private life, it's important you cut yourself off from problems at work. I go to church and I love it because you realise that other people's opinions differ.

RUTH LEA director of policy, IoD

Recognise what is important to you. I once felt that I couldn't spare the time to go to my children's school, but talking about it afterwards I realised that their school experience is one of the most important things in my life. After that, finding a morning a week wasn't a big deal.

HENRY STEWARD founder and chief executive, Happy Computers

We chunk it! Six months for her work, six for mine. Two homes, one for creative work, one for people. I cook in one, she in the other. It's fun and it works.

CHARLES HANDY social commentator (with ELIZABETH HANDY photographer)

My time belongs to CBI members - 24/7 ... Isn't that what I'm paid for? With no kids, a very understanding wife and a job to die for, my work and my life are happily in balance; but I compartmentalise well, and on holidays I don't 'do work' at all.

DIGBY JONES director-general, CBI

My maxims for work/life balance are: only do things that are stimulating, have real value to others, are with enjoyable people, and, preferably, are in interesting places. Work at home if you can. Don't retire - take an 'open-ended sabbatical' in later years. And have a challenging wife!

ROGER CUNLIFFE workstyle consultant

The secret is not to worry if you're working or not. In the same way that it's best to eat when you're hungry, it's best to work when you feel productive and not at set times dictated by someone else. Listen to your feelings and act accordingly.

RICHARD REEVES director of futures, Industrial Society

The secret is not to worry if you're working or not. In the same way that it's best to eat when you're hungry, it's best to work when you feel productive and not at set times dictated by someone else. Listen to your feelings and act accordingly.

RICHARD REEVES director of futures, Industrial Society

The workplace is so inefficient and exasperating there are only two solutions: stop working altogether or, if not, get up early. I've been getting up earlier and earlier - sometimes at 4am - to get on with my work. But then I don't work after 6pm.

SHIRLEY CONRAN chair of Work/Life Forum

As an engineer, I find that the boundary between work and the rest of my time is blurred. An engineer is always working - constantly analysing products to see whether they offer the best solution. That's what I find so stimulating about what I do.

JAMES DYSON inventor and engineer.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today