How to get the payback from investment in work-life balance

by David Clutterbuck, Copyright Clutterbuck Associates 2003

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Vast amounts of time and effort have been injected by companies and Government in recent years in policies and initiatives to improve work-life balance. The business case, if sometimes expressed in over-optimistic terms, is broadly sound; the benefits to individuals and the community at large even clearer.

Yet the results have been disappointing. While companies point to specific benefits from individual initiatives, the overall impact has generally been muted. For employees, there is even less to write home about – the proportion of people regularly working long hours is still increasing.

What has gone wrong? In my new book Managing the Work-Life Balance, I try to unravel some of the reasons – and to outline some practical solutions. The book is the result of trawls through hundreds of publications, interviews with human resource professionals, CEOs and employees at many levels, a detailed survey of company practice and input from workshops with line managers in both public and private sector organisations.

Before we look at why organisations struggle to make work-life balance deliver, it helps to examine why individuals have problems balancing the various parts of their lives. At heart, the dilemma of work-life balance is one of complexity management. Our Victorian ancestors, who worked 60 hours a week with a mere handful of public holidays, do not appear to have suffered angst about work-life balance, so why do we? Put simply, our lives are immensely more complex and becoming increasingly so with every year that passes. In every aspect of our lives, we have more choices, more opportunities, and more demands upon us. Think, for example, how many more activities the typical parent ends up transporting their children to each week!

The same is true for employer organisations. The concept of excellence has been replaced by that of agility, as the Holy Grail of survival and thrival. Organisations need to be far-seeing but capable of rapid action and reaction – a difficult juggling act. In order to gain real value form investment in work-life balance, organisations need to recognise it as a complex issue and apply much more holistic solutions than has usually been the case.

Most of the organisations we examined had put considerable effort into establishing policies for work-life balance. But policies don’t change anything, if the culture is resistant. Employees who fear that working flexibly or part-time will have a negative effect on their careers or their bonus will inevitably feel wary of taking advantage of work-life balance policies.

Moreover, these batteries of policies are rarely integrated into an overall Work- Life Balance strategy. As a result, much of potential impact, for all stakeholders, is lost.

To stimulate culture change, policies need to be backed up with change in systems and in the attitudes and capability of people. The organisation needs to examine its:

  • Processes for work organisation – how it divides up work and responsibilities
  • Technology – for example, whether people at all levels can work effectively from home, or how delivery routes are planned
  • HR systems – how processes such as appraisal, recruitment, succession planning and access to train either support or hinder Work-Life Balance objectives

Auditing both policies (are they up-to-date and mutually supportive?) and processes should be at least an annual event.

In the people context, there is a clear need for positive role models at all levels in the organisation. Equally, communication between the organisation and employees should raise understanding of what is possible in achieving flexibility for both of them, and ensure that employees have a practical input into policy and processes.

Training is also an essential ingredient in the culture change. There are at least four key audiences for training:

  • Top management, who need to be briefed regularly and helped to demonstrate commitment and be effective role models
  • Individual employees, who frequently need help to determine what kind of Work-Life Balance they want and why; and to plan how they will achieve their Work-Life Balance goals
  • Line managers, who need to learn how to allocate work more effectively, to distinguish between urgent and important tasks and to extract value from enabling direct reports to work more flexibly or remotely
  • The team, so that it can take greater responsibility for evolving win/win solutions to potential conflict between employees’ needs and the needs of the business

If these four audiences are aligned in their understanding of the issues, the priorities and how to achieve these collaboratively, the chances of changing both attitude and behaviour are greatly increased.

The final element in a coherent approach to Work-Life Balance relates to the measurement of outcomes. To maintain enthusiasm and momentum, there must be clear and positive impacts for employees and the organisation. In addition, there is a strong case, in the context of corporate reputation, for measuring impacts on the community – for example, the level of volunteering by employees.

The list of potential paybacks for the employer is long. The hard returns – those that are expressed in cash, return on investment or share price – are the most difficult to measure. It is clear from our analysis that most of the impact of Work- Life Balance activity is on intermediary or indirect factors, such as retention, corporate reputation, productivity quality, creativity and customer service. Having great success in Work-Life Balance terms will not prevent an organisation following a disastrous acquisition programme, for example!

The net result of our research has been the development of a Quality Model for Work-Life Balance, which pulls all these strands together:

Figure 1: The Quality Model for Work-Life Balance

Time Flexibility Work organisation Role Models For Individuals
Location Flexibility Technology Inform/Educate/ Consult/Empower For the Organisation
Benefits and Support HR Systems Training For society/the community

David Clutterbuck is a an acclaimed author on mentoring and organisational learning, a member of the European Mentoring & Coaching Council and head of Clutterbuck Associates. He can be contacted on 01628 661667 or via