Agnes Uhereczky is a consultant, podcaster and workplace transformer. She is the co-founder of the WorkLife HUB.
Nobody asks you where you are. Nobody makes sarcastic comments about your day. You know of your children’s progress and also are reassured about your mom’s health. Does this sound like heaven?
Well, it could be. And actually, some workplaces are like that, and if you work in one of them, then I would love to hear from you.
I spend my time figuring out what is the difference between the best places to work and some of the worst places to work. Of course there are number of caveats in my story above: it is probably a mid-level or senior employee in the knowledge economy. But as this is a growing segment of the workforce, I thought it most recognisable and relatable.
Life doesn't stop at 9 in the morning to start again after 6pm
Work-life integration happens, when we are able to give our attention to our work and our lives outside of work as is necessary and fulfilling. It means a much more fluid weaving in and out of our time and attention between the two. Because life doesn’t stop at 9 in the morning to start again after 6 pm.
So my Big Question is: how can we allow the most workplaces to transform into the kind of experience where employees feel free to be who they are (mothers, fathers, carers, sportsmen, academics, citizens, avid readers or Netflix addicts) yet be given the opportunity to give their best work.
Academics and practitioners speak of workplace initiatives, policies and organisational culture in equal measure and one has to wonder – how to get our policies – culture – behaviour ducks in a row.
State of the American Workplace
Gallup (1) just published its famous, often cited and often criticized Annual report about the State of the American Workplace, and it finds that “flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job”.
Even though the most revered academics in the field tend to move away from policies and flexible work – in the direction of work re-design and basically “that’s just the way we do things around here” ie. the norm, I guess we still need to start somewhere, and workplace flexibility is a good place to start.
As a professional habit I ask everybody about their work flexibility. A friend of mine working for the Belgian Federal government told me, yes yes, they have flexible working. Employees sign a flexible or teleworking contract with the employer, which fixes your weekly tele-working day ahead. Even if there is an important meeting at work on that day, and even if you would rather work a different day from home a particular week. So besides the mind-boggling rigidity, which is only there to sooth the line-manager who still manages by face-time and not objectives, to benefit from this policy and to adapt it to your needs – you need to request it and ask for permission.
And this is the challenge with workplace policies. They will never be as broad to encompass everyone’s needs, and also our needs change, as we need to react to unpredictable life events.
There needs to be a set of transparent rules
However, before the desired behaviour becomes the norm, there needs to be a set of transparent rules, that allow for flexibility and for a margin of autonomy over your time at work, and lays the foundation for the desired culture and behaviour.
After more than 65 podcast episodes, in which I ask the same question at the end to every guest: what would be your advice to a CEO, here is some of the advice from the most brilliant minds of work-life balance:
- Don’t assume you have all the answers – you may assume you know what your employees want, but perhaps you don’t. Don’t just launch a policy without getting employee buy-in.
- Find your own aspirational desired culture. Don’t try to be Google. Try to be the best you, you can become, a place where employees get an amazing experience at work, according to the context (country, legislation, norms and culture, technology, sector) and purpose.
- Just ask and more importantly: listen. And even better, ask the same questions a year later, and see what has changed.
- At Keller Williams (US realty company) employees are requested to schedule their holidays and time-off as a priority on the company’s calendar early in the year. Block that time for your brother’s wedding, family holiday or marathon in advance and then the team will make sure it works around that time when you won’t be there.
- A common misconception is, that if you ask employees what they want, they will ask for it and hold you accountable. After having spoken to a number of HR and other directors responsible for this, they all confirm, that already asking and facilitating an open discussion makes employees feel valued and appreciated. They are adults. They know that not everything is possible, and if you can reasonable explain why one or other flexibility is not possible (data security, building security, legislation, health and safety rules…), they will accept it.
- Set business rules – implementing workplace flexibility doesn’t mean that everyone can get away with everything. There still needs to be an authentic set of rules that will allow current and future employees to use as a list of guiding principles. In Cisco it is called the “Cisco People Deal”, what can they expect and what is expected of them.
- Start with one unit at a time – find a willing line-manager who will help you drive this process, iterate and prepare a Roadmap for how they have done it. Let them remove the perceived and real barriers and offer to roll it out company wide after they have smoothed the edges.
- Management is called a “discipline” for a reason – it needs persistence, consistency and responsibility. Once you put your finger on the pulse of what works – stay with it. Don’t jump from one experiment to the other, employees will grow weary of the “flavour of the month”.
Let employees design what work-life balance means to them in that time-period, let them also change it as life develops for them, and forget the cookie cutter approach of rigid policies.