I was standing at my local supermarket checkout this Saturday and suddenly realised I was part of a huge shuffling throng of exhausted looking shoppers, whose bags under their eyes rivalled those they were robotically stuffing with nappies and ready meals. Like me, no doubt everyone in there was trying to get through those mundane weekend tasks, such as grocery shopping, before attempting to manically cram in as much downtime as possible into the precious remaining free hours. When the chirpy checkout assistant handed me my receipt and a cashback voucher for my next shop, I suddenly thought to myself: “Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could get the life equivalent of a cashback voucher?”
Work life balance has been in the news a great deal this week with Sweden set to introduce a six hour working day, with the intention of increasing productivity levels through a happier and more energetic workforce. To allow for this shift, employees were being asked to stay off social media and keep meetings to a minimum. Whilst the Swedes are tucking into their Ikea meatballs during all this extra leisure time, according to the OECD Better Life Index (courtesy of HC Online), Australians clock up 1,693 hours at work a year, which is still 83 hours less than the OECD average. What is notable though is that at least 14% of Aussies put in much longer hours at work, particularly if you take into consideration how much extra time we now spend checking our work emails at home in the evenings and at weekends.
When I speak to many candidates about their current working patterns, many confess that they have almost lost control of their working lives due to technology. Some will work on the train, log on after dinner and even have been known to check work emails in the middle of a restless night. But shouldn’t the trade off be that with this smarter technology we are now able to work in flexible ways, that were not possible before the days of iPhones? According to Forbes Magazine, the work-life balance conundrum remains ever elusive, despite countless online tips and hacks about how to achieve it. Forbes claims that the phrase alone “work-life” balance gets Googled as much as 50,000 times per month.
I’m often asked by candidates with children about how to approach the subject of flexibility around the logistics of drop offs and pick-ups, or school holidays. At my agency company, 33Talent I’m an enthusiastic practitioner and supporter of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) and am proud to say that this has been a very positive step towards helping my team juggle their out of work responsibilities, whilst maintaining a healthy bottom line - in Sydney alone we have 4 back to work mums. But I do hear frustrating anecdotes of working parents being made to feel marginalised for leaving early. One female recruiter colleague told me she once had a team member make revving sounds like a Formula One car every time she rushed to get off the phone and grab her coat at the end of the day, to make it to the childcare centre in time.
But what if a candidate were to raise the idea of “life equality” at an interview, meaning guaranteeing the amount of downtime a worker gets to pursue a life outside of work for reasons other than a parenting or carer’s role? I suspect this would raise quite a few eyebrows. For most people the idea of demanding any sort of “life equality” when going for a new job, it would automatically feel like they are putting themselves at an immediate disadvantage. Indeed, the The New York Times published an article in 2013 claiming that there is an unspoken taboo around asking for workplace flexibility and it is often men who come off far worse in the process. They cited studies by the University of California, which suggest a phenomenon of the “flexibility stigma”, meaning that gender discrimination is still very common for working females, as mothers are viewed as less committed and competent by requesting to work less hours. But if a man were to ask for flexibility, this automatically raises alarm bells about their long term dedication to their jobs for daring to want a life outside their office. You could then go on to argue that if we want to promote equality in the workforce, shouldn’t we be treating men as individuals, who have the same choices as women?
So why is the notion of “life equality” more important than ever? In post GFC Australia, shouldn’t we just be happy that most of us have jobs, given declining margins, budgets and competition from more cost effective overseas markets? I speak to many clients across a huge spectrum of organisations of all shapes and sizes. The truth is that for most of them, despite the advancements in technology, many working practises have not realistically changed in decades, such as the assumption that productivity is highly dependant on attendance. Consequently we have created a crazy, stressed out society, where we are trying to cram far more into these precious 24 hours a day. Therein lies a huge irony as adapting ‘modern’ practices like ROWE will actually improve productivity and help those margins. Friction is always a negative influence.
As a business owner and parent, I am particularly concerned by studies such as those by Dr Dino Pisaniello of the School of Population Health at Adelaide University. These state that cuts to work life balance have a direct link with poor family health, such as obesity and the knock on effects, such as diabetes.
Leaving the supermarket, I stepped away from the crowds and immediately began to think of ways that myself as an individual could champion the idea of “life cashback vouchers” in my own company, whilst still keeping my bookkeeper happy. Stopping at the park on the way home, my immediate reaction was to Google “work-life balance tips”, but then I decided to unplug. I can’t do much to change the number of hours in the day, but I can choose to be present in the moment to watch my kids on the slide, instead of glancing at my screen every five minutes. Likewise I remembered the conference call where I had been pressing the mute button, whilst taking huge bites of a sandwich I had bought on the run. We must all attempt to lead from the top when it came to ensuring our staff are prioritised taking a reasonable break at lunchtime, even to go out for a 15 minute power walk. I would also proactively raise the “life equality” question with clients, to share and pass on new ideas about how more flexible working practises could help them secure, incentivise and retain top talent. ROWE will also be an agenda I will continue to enforce and blog about. Most importantly, I realised that life equality often starts with small steps, but it is these which lead to more sustainable working patterns, rather than a crash diet which fizzles out after just one week.
What are your thoughts on “life equality”? Should we be following the Swedish example or should we be concentrating on working more efficiently?