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May 26, 2015

Workplace flexibility remains a thorny issue

Managing work and life is becoming more difficult, finds global study

By Claudine Kapel

It’s probably not a surprise to anyone, but new research suggests it’s getting harder to manage the balance between work and life.

It’s a thorny issue for employers. On the one hand, many companies globally are asking employees to do more with less, which often translates into more hours at work.

Yet at the same time, many organizations are also concerned about maintaining a high-performing and productive workforce and retaining top talent.

The central challenge for employers is that these two objectives are fundamentally at odds with one another.  And ultimately, there are limits on how much more can be demanded of employees before either productivity and work quality suffers or employees elect to seek job opportunities elsewhere.

Of course, there’s no definitive standard for “work-life balance” because it means different things to different people. Nevertheless, there continue to be warning signs that a lack of equilibrium is taking its toll on employees – and ultimately on organizations themselves.

In a new EY survey, one-third of full-time employees globally reported “managing work-life has become more difficult in the last five years.”

The EY survey reflects perspectives from nearly 9,700 full-time workers in eight countries – the United States, Germany, Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, India, and the United Kingdom.

The top reasons why managing work-life is getting harder include:

  • Salary has not increased much, but expenses have
  • Responsibilities at work have increased
  • Increased responsibilities at home
  • Working longer hours
  • Having children.

About half (46 per cent) of managers globally reported working more than 40 hours a week, and four in 10 said their hours have increased in the past five years.

Work-life considerations were also a central theme in the top reasons why full-time workers quit their jobs. The top five reasons were:

  • Minimal wage growth
  • Lack of opportunity to advance
  • Excessive overtime hours
  • A work environment that does not encourage teamwork
  • A boss that doesn’t allow employees to work flexibly.

Other factors in the top 10 that related to workplace flexibility included:

  • “Flexibility stigma” or the perception that people who work flexibly or take leave will suffer career consequences
  • A lack of workplace flexibility altogether, including no option to telecommute, and
  • Too much overnight travel.

After competitive pay and benefits, the top things respondents reported as being very important in a potential job included:

  • Being able to work flexibly and still be on track for promotion, and
  • Working with colleagues, including my boss, who support my efforts to work flexibly.

Other desired flexibility-related perks identified by survey respondents included:

  • The ability to work flexibly on an informal basis when needed
  • Receiving paid parental leave, and
  • Not working excessive overtime.

Among the U.S. respondents, one in 10 reported they have “suffered a negative consequence as a result of having a flexible work schedule.” The rate was higher for millennials, at nearly one in six.

A notable percentage of U.S. respondents also indicated that they would be “willing to make job and career changes to better manage work-life integration,” notes EY. For example, 54 per cent indicated they either had or would be willing to give up an opportunity for a promotion to be able to better manage work-life.

The survey results offer some valuable food for thought. Most of the items on the respondents’ flexibility-related wish list are both reasonable and achievable if an organization is willing to meet its people halfway.

Who wouldn’t want – or benefit from – the ability to flex where or when one works when needed, or to keep excessive overtime to a minimum?

Yet many organizations struggle with how best to deliver on this coveted flexibility. In part, it’s hard to find a singular policy or approach that works for everyone, given the diversity of jobs and coverage requirements in most organizations. But for some organizations, it’s even more challenging to shift perceptions so those seeking greater balance or flexibility do not risk – or suffer – adverse career consequences.

Like a tree in the wind, the very essence of flexibility is about being able to bend in the face of environmental forces so as not to be broken by them. And the pressure is mounting for organizations to become more flexible in how they deliver flexibility itself.

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