Employers who want to attract more job applicants – particularly younger ones – should talk about their work-life balance policies when recruiting, suggests research by Warwick Business School’s Shainaz Firfiray.
Her experimental study, involving 189 MBA students aged between 26 and 40, found that people were more likely to apply for a job that promised flexibility than for an equivalent role offering healthcare benefits – or no benefits at all.
"There is already a lot of anecdotal evidence and research suggesting that many employees have difficulties managing work as well as their personal commitments," says Firfiray, associate professor of organisation and HRM. "A recent European Quality of Life Survey found that 22 per cent of people in employment are not satisfied with their work-life balance."
Given this, it is hardly surprising companies that make a point of promising to help employees find a satisfactory work-life balance have an advantage over their peers.
Surprisingly, few companies offering such benefits mention them on the recruitment pages of their websites.
"If they did mention it they would find that putting up even a small amount of information might help them to attract more applicants," says Firfiray, whose research also finds that work-life benefits were more popular with ‘millennials’ – people who reached adulthood around the turn of the century – than with Generation X – generally seen as those born between the 1960s and the early 1980s.
"As people get older they may have more healthcare needs and therefore be more attracted to healthcare benefits," she says. "Future research could work to isolate the effects of age and other demographic factors."
It also suggests employers could do more in the meantime to look at how to tailor the benefits they offer to the specific needs of their targeted demographic with their recruitment advertising.
But getting new employees through the door is only the first part of the process, which is why Firfiray’s latest research examines what happens next. What she found suggests organisations that want to take full advantage of the business benefits of their work-life balance policies need to do more than put them on their websites or include them in the employee handbook.
Such policies can mean employees feel more committed to their employer and therefore less likely to leave – avoiding all the associated costs of staff turnover – but only if managers endorse and support them.
"Work-life balance policies attract potential employees, but they do not make them more likely to stay on unless they can see the policies are supported by the organisation and by their direct supervisor," says Firfiray. "Employees need to feel confident that taking advantage of such a policy will not harm their career prospects."
In other words, they need to be reassured that it is okay to actually use the policy.
"This means that work-life balance policies have to be accompanied by a change in organisational culture," says Firfiray. "There needs to be greater openness about discussing the needs of employees as well as those of the organisation, and the assurance that the policies won’t create any negative outcomes in terms of careers."
This level of change will often require employers to make a significant cultural shift in order to convince staff – including the managers whose endorsement is critical to employees’ trust – that this support of work-life balance is genuine.
Entrepreneur Lizzie Penny, however, has taken a somewhat different view. The Warwick Business School graduate argues that real work-life balance requires not simply a cultural change, but a structural one.
"It needs the sort of radical change that only entrepreneurs are confident to do at this stage," says Penny.
She is speaking from experience. In 2014 she set up The Hoxby Collective, an organisation that champions ‘workstyle’ and facilitates each of its ‘Hoxbies’ working where and when they choose.
The Hoxbies are judged on their output alone, and between them deliver projects for Amazon, Unilever, Merck, AIA and Anglian Water, as well as a myriad of smaller clients.
Hoxby has no employees, instead "curating teams" of individuals from its 600-strong team across 29 countries.
It also has a number of self-employed equity ‘partners’ who, between them, own a quarter of the business and share in its profits.
And it is always profitable, says Penny, as it makes a margin on the total project fee charged to clients. Associates all also work independently of Hoxby whether on personal clients or their own businesses, and importantly they all choose when and how they work, whether that is term-time only, a day or two per week, evenings only – whatever suits them.
Real work-life balance means having the ability to fit your work around your life, not the other way around, says Penny.
"Everyone is self-employed," she says. "We believe that people can only truly achieve their perfect work-life balance by being their own boss.
Though this can bring challenges of isolation, which Hoxby addresses with a Slack community. The end result, she believes, is good for workers, for the partnership and for the businesses that use its services. Maybe the future of balancing work and life will not be shaped just by changing job advertising, but by changing the nature of work itself.