Thoughts From Our Heads

Thoughts From Our Heads


Making Work-Life Balance Work

Wednesday 16th October 2019

I had an interesting chat this morning with the team at Dubai Eye Business Breakfast on work-life balance. Most knowledge workers go to an office for a set number of hours, much as we have done for the past 50 years. The difference now is we are always accessible through our phones, so end up often working evenings and weekends too. Shouldn’t the way we work, transition to fit with the digital world? Do companies have a right to know your every move? Are you obligated to work in the evenings and on weekends? Is flexible working acceptable? There was plenty I didn’t get to say on the radio so here are my thoughts on how and why companies should introduce more flexible working practices.




People Crave Autonomy

We all have an inbuilt need for autonomy. From Deci and Ryan (Self Determinism Theory, 2000) to more recent popularisation from Daniel Pink (Drive, 2009), autonomy is consistently found to be a key driver in personal motivation. People it would seem, don’t like to be told what to do (shocker!) When companies stifle autonomy by dictating how people run their day and their work, they will seek other ways to find autonomy. This can take the form of things that are empowering and bring efficiencies, such as, I will find my own way to organise this data or I will decide how to prioritise my tasks; to the more damaging ways, such as slacking off, work sabotage, stealing and procrastinating.

Managers might say, I need to tell people exactly what to do because otherwise, they will get it wrong. People, I would argue adapt to the environment around them. If you always tell people what to do they will stop thinking for themselves, because what’s the point? A plant needs space to grow and so do people. Take a step back and give autonomy and you will see personal responsibility and motivation increase.


Trust Breeds Trust

In too many organisations the trust goes one way. Companies demand trust from their employees and are unwilling to give it. If you want to be trusted you need to give trust. Let’s stop treating employees like children, incapable of managing their own time. For most knowledge workers they don’t need to be in the office, they have laptops and mobiles and can pretty much work from anywhere. But managers have a fear that if they can’t see their employees they must not be working. The research just doesn’t support this. When you put your trust in employees to get their work done in a way that suits their lifestyle they respond by working just as hard, if not harder. When I ask people in training where they are at their most productive, they never say at their desk. They say at home, in a coffee shop or hidden away in a meeting room. Let’s put our trust in people up so they can build a workday that suits them so they can maximise their productivity. 


Out of Date Management Practices

Many of the management practices that we use today have their roots in Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management (or Taylorism). Originated in the early 1900s this principle was based on maximising the efficiency of factory workers. Taylor founded modern management by suggesting that there should be a division in the thinking about work and the actual labour and that in order to maximise the efficiency of workers you should find the one best way to do a task and teach everyone to do it that way. While this worked in the 1900s factory setting, the same principles do not work for knowledge workers. And yet when I first studied business in the late 90s we were taught Taylorism as one of a few valid management theories in all business settings. The impacts of Taylorism exist in the command and control style of many current managers, a do as I say attitude which forgets that people are not machines and are unique and talented individuals, with superior skills in many areas to the people managing them.


Work Pressure

This debate though is not just about work-life balance. It is also about the sheer volume of work and pressure that employees are under. If you are working a 14 hour day from home, you are still working a 14 hour day. Being able to wear jeans on a Thursday loses its shine when you are still in the office at 9 pm. In order to allow people to have more work-life balance we need to address the issue that many organisation are understaffed and are piling the pressure on a reduced workforce to achieve greater results. Employees, as a result, are overworked and stressed and struggle to maintain any sense of work-life balance. The impact is on family life and on health. Gulf News reported in April this year that heart attacks amongst South Asian men in their 30s and 40s are on the rise. Diet, exercise and stress are major contributory factors to heart attacks. Workers are overstressed and don’t have time to exercise. Companies talk a lot about well-being but yoga and meditation classes won’t solve the problem. Well-staffed companies, fair work allocation and sensible working hours will. 




Change from the Top

This is not an HR initiative. Well not solely. This is about a sweeping culture change that needs to happen across the entire organisation. It is no surprise that most of the companies leading the way are silicon valley tech companies. It is much easier to introduce more employee-friendly working practices when you are starting from scratch. That doesn’t mean companies can’t change. Ricardo Semler took over his father’s manufacturing business, Brazillian company Semco Partners in 1980. He set out to transform the business to give greater work-life balance to the employees. His ‘radical’ initiatives include having employees set their own hours and salaries, no monitoring of working hours, freedom on where employees work from, no dress code and no secretaries. Under his leadership, the business grew from $4 million in revenue to over $160 million in about 20 years. (Check out his book The Seven-Day Weekend). The change must come from the CEO and be implemented fully throughout the organisation and reflected in all organisational policies and practices. 


Integrated Approach

If you are thinking you would like to introduce flexible working, working from home or giving more freedom to employees in other ways, know that if you do this in isolation without changing other things it will not work. These changes need to be supported by other changes in the business that ensures success. Giving people freedom doesn’t mean that you have no idea what they are doing. You need to have a robust objective procedure so that employees know exactly what they should be achieving at any given time. We do this quarterly using the OKR (objectives and key results) system, your company might have its own way of doing this. In a flexible working environment, people are not measured on the time they spend at work (a totally useless measure of anything anyway) but on how well they deliver on their key results. You will soon realise if someone is spending all of their time sat at home watching tv (highly unlikely anyway) when they don’t achieve any of their results. Companies need to ensure their performance management processes are set up in the right way to properly assess performance and recognise high achievers.


 Management Excellence

A few companies have taken progressive working practices to the level at which they have got rid of managers altogether. I think managers have a place as good managers play an important role in the development of others and the success of work. This depends though, on getting the right type of people in management roles. Usually, people are promoted to a management position because they have excelled as an individual contributor in their field, this is a poor predictor of management success. I would like to see more companies promote people based on their ability to manage and rather than viewing management as a superior role we just view it as another job role in the company. Managers might not even make more money than their team members. I also think that if we gave employees a say in who their manager is we would be able to quickly weed out the bad managers. The manger-employee relationship is the most important one in the workplace and accounts for up to 70% of an employee’s engagement at work (Gallup). Why not, where possible, let people choose their manager? 


Once you have the right people in management roles they need help and support to develop themselves as effective managers and leaders. They need coaching skills and to know how to communicate effectively with their team. In his latest book, 9 Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham argues that a manager should have a check-in with each team member once a week and a whole team meeting once a week. The ideal span of control for a manager therefore, is the number of people they can manage a meaningful check-in with each week. These catch-ups are even more important if people are working remotely, and not just for productivity but also for the sake of connection and relationship building. Managers need to set the team norms by which they want their team to abide and then they need to role model the way. Saying one thing and doing another does not work. 


So my challenge goes out to CEOs, CHROs, CEOs and anyone in a leadership position. Give trust, loosen the reins and believe in the talented, dedicated and intelligent people that you hired to do their jobs and step up and deliver results. 


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