Work-life balance remains one of the most significant change management issues facing organisations today – easily as much as it was at the height of the pandemic. But why is it still such a struggle? Surely, we should have got the hang of it by now…?
COVID was a global emergency into which we were suddenly plunged – and, true to our national stereotype, we rolled up our sleeves and, for the most part, coped admirably. Within days, laptops were issued, lessons went online and we were all walking our dogs like there was no tomorrow. But tomorrow came, of course – and since COVID didn’t have an end date, we’ve sort of dribbled out of the other side and gone from emergency response to a state of confusion.
The aftermath doesn’t have the drama or immediacy of the crisis itself, nor the necessity or tragedy. As such, the decisiveness and assertive action we excelled at has been replaced with reticence and procrastination. There’s been a lot of waiting and seeing, and the ‘new normal’ was talked about for so long that we started hearing about the ’new, new normal’.
As the dust of the pandemic settled, many organisations failed to see the gentle revolution that was rising out of the vaccine queues. The voice of the people became loud and clear; ‘We won’t flock back to the office. Our work life balance is better now and we’re doing our jobs perfectly well’. As a result, workplaces are facing major, people-based hurdles and organisations are finally saying, “We’re not managing this properly.” Which is true.
There are three main challenges.
Firstly, the primary legacy of COVID was – and remains – a re-evaluation among employees of the relationship between life and work. During COVID, we embedded ourselves deeper in our own communities, because that’s where we were stuck. People couldn’t be part of their work-based social lives, teams and societies, so they engaged more with the equivalents in their local area. Parents could be more present for their kids, neighbours could be more neighbourly and animal lovers could give their furry friends more attention. On top of those benefits, the positive impact of the changes on physical and mental wellbeing was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of office presenteeism.
Secondly, discretionary effort – which, according to research, supports up to 50% of organisational profits – is on the wane. Amid the re-evaluation I’ve described above, when faced with a choice between a) sticking it out in the office of an evening to nudge a project ahead of schedule, or b) the opportunity to work at home so they can put their kids to bed, workers are increasingly (rightly or wrongly) re-directing that discretionary effort from work to home.
Lastly, organisations are struggling to manage attendance in such a way that justifies the office as a worthwhile but expensive asset. It’s not as if Fridays weren’t underutilised before: pre-COVID, average office occupancy hovered between 52% and 60% – but now, it’s closer to 40%. Some senior and middle-ranking leaders want staff to come back in because they think that’s how people collaborate, form relationships and learn – which is not entirely inaccurate. But employees themselves have now proved it’s not the only way.
We’re frequently seeing bright, young, competent people coming out of university and/or training with online qualifications – but they’re being told by workplace dinosaurs that you can’t possibly work effectively from home. ‘Learning through osmosis’ is too often touted as justification for dragging people back into the office as if it’s the ONLY way to learn. Try telling that to someone who just achieved a first class degree online. Huge change has taken place in a relatively short space of time and there is an enormous disparity with how people are adapting to it.
Those three challenges are entirely interlinked.
My mantra is that leadership is everything. If you have good leaders, anything is possible. But we have to teach people how to lead more effectively for the hybrid world. Most people in organisations aren’t trained to manage or lead for agile, flexible or hybrid work styles – but from what I’ve seen in my own work, middle managers in particular are crying out for that sort of input. Not necessarily a course with a certificate, but practical guidance that will help them to improve their coordination with staff and navigate the new world with relevancy.
There’s a lovely phrase, ‘We can’t use old maps for new worlds.’ That applies 100% to the current paradigm shift. I’m from a military background and there are terms I still like to use that civilians may be less familiar with, although they can be really relevant – for example, the combat estimate (assessment): to size up a situation, make a plan and act on it. That’s what we did when COVID hit – so why aren’t we doing it now?
Another powerful tool in the military is role modelling. One organisation I worked with brought in my team to help out on a change initiative, but told us, “We don’t want you to talk to our executive team – we want you to focus on the tier down.” But does that mean the tier-down aren’t truly empowered to role-model the changes required? And what support could they expect from above? Should they go back up to the senior team for permission or guidance from executives who won’t understand, because they haven’t engaged with the process?
Straight away, there’s confusion, mixed messaging and a risk of watered down strategies and tactical actions – resulting in changes that are never properly adopted because they dissipate into gossip through lack of clarity and visible role modelling at all levels.
Here's another lovely phrase: ‘Freedoms and constraints.’ It’s one that ex-service people who are transitioning into civilian life tend to focus on – but it just as easily applies to hybrid working. Now, hold that thought…
One of my old bosses talked about the benefits of ‘simplifying complexity,’ which sounds a bit strange, but I totally got it – the military is very good at applying clarity and brevity to its messaging. But often we don’t do that in the corporate world – it can be so long and verbose with corporate lingo and zero sense of humour. How do you effectively communicate and engage with staff who are already expecting your communications to be boring, and therefore simply skip past?
What people need in this new world is well-defined structure, underpinned by solid reasoning and clear, consistent communication. Tell someone they have to be in the office on a certain day because a senior-management diktat says so and this will probably fail to sway them from the day of working from home that they had planned, and is more likely to inspire a sigh of resentment than any form of discretionary effort. But tell them you want the design team in, to meet up with the PR team to brainstorm ideas for an important new client, and you’re introducing the very type of exciting synergy that should encourage people to turn up… and bring their discretionary effort!
That extends to the need for managers having difficult conversations – which brings us back to our phrase ‘freedoms and constraints.’ Hybrid working has to work for everyone –including businesses with expensive office leases. The current difficult conversation stems from companies telling their staff, “We really value being together.” Or, as one of my clients puts it, “We want to be together when it counts.” The catch being, when does it count? And of course, it will count more to some at certain times than to others.
Studies have shown that we’re prepared to take leaders to task for not showing up at the office – but not staff. We’re worried about their discretionary effort going down. We’re worried about them taking umbrage and quitting, leaving us with the £30K-to-£50K cost of recruiting and training a new person. So, we back off and don’t say anything. And the result is, the bad people take advantage – for example, 4% of people have never been back to the office since COVID. Meanwhile, the good people turn up every now and then, only to face frustration when their colleagues aren’t there – so they perceive their own effort to attend as a wasted trip. Somewhere, through a willingness to have difficult conversations, we have to find a balance between freedoms and constraints.
Here are three important things to consider when approaching work-life balance in the hybrid world that will stimulate wellbeing at both an individual and organisational level:
Openness and transparency: Last year, my team did a fantastic exercise with a company where we asked each member of staff to do a two-minute presentation in front of colleagues called ‘My Lockdown Life.’ It took about an hour-and-a- half to go through all the stories, and people shared the most moving details. Everyone discovered as much about themselves as they learned about everyone else – and gained a deeper understanding and context of how to approach the new interaction between work and life, including how it may differ from colleague to colleague.
Dealing with distraction and selecting where to work: In the office, we’re more receptive to learning because there’s always so much ‘stuff’ going on around us that we can soak up, however, there’s also a great deal of noise and distraction. Conversely, at home where it’s often quieter and less populated, we have to be far more deliberate about how we learn from everyday experiences – albeit with the phone and web providing our minds with all sorts of opportunities to wander. Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable provides excellent guidance on how to optimise our attention.
Managing routine: Putting the kids to bed five nights a week sounds wonderful. But is it a realistic red line, based on the job you have – and what you need to do? In the hybrid world, no individual employee’s routine will consist entirely of things that they like. Nor will it be void of compromise. When senior teams have to make hard decisions about how best to manage costly office space and the interactions of the people within it, compromises are inevitable. That said, you may be able to pick up projects that fall more in line with your strengths and personal preferences. So, be assertive, be realistic and prepare yourself for some calm negotiation.
Voices from our community: Christopher Allen is Chief Workplace and Change Director at MONTROC Consulting.