There's no dispute about the desirability of work-life balance. Without it, health and relationships suffer, stress levels soar, and work productivity falters. There's plenty of research to illustrate these ill-effects.
Less black and white is the issue of what work-life balance is. More than half of people say they have turned down a job because of concerns about its impact on work-life balance but each person may define work-life balance differently. One person's 'demanding but interesting job' is another person's 'relentless treadmill'.
Are long hours always detrimental?
A good example of a grey area in work-life balance is working hours. Intuitively, one would say that work-life balance necessitates shorter hours, but there are stats that appear to confound this.
There's a good example in the latest Regus Work-Life Balance Index. In the Index the three major economies with the highest work-life balance are Mexico, India and Brazil, all of them significantly above the global average. Yet, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, employees in Mexico and Brazil are more likely to work very long hours than the OECD average (India is not included in the OECD study). Indeed, Mexico has some of the longest average working hours in the OECD. So there's more to work-life balance than not spending too long at the office.
Flexibility is key to well-being
One factor is control and people's freedom to choose how hard they work. The Regus Work-Life Balance Index shows that business owners appear to enjoy better work-life balance than their employees: 74% of business owners enjoy work more than they did a year ago, compared with 66% of employees. The difference is that business owners can make their own decisions about where, when and how much they work.
The logical extension is that employers should offer this choice to their staff - letting employees adapt their working hours to fit their lifestyles, and giving them flexibility over work locations in order to help them cut their commuting. As well as facilitating a more harmonious work-life balance, flexible working has a lower environmental impact.
Location flexibility matters as much as time flexibility
Offering a choice of work locations is especially helpful in metropolitan areas. With urban sprawl and worsening traffic congestion making commuting ever more time-consuming, allowing employees to work closer to home frees up hours each week - time they may use for work as well as non-work activities.
At Regus locations all over the world, we're seeing more and more usage by people who are working away from their main office locations for some or all of the week, and using our local business centres instead. In the process, Regus, the world's largest provider of flexible workplaces, is helping customers from a one-man-band to the world's largest company to be more productive, and we're giving them the flexibility - and freed-up time - to work their way.
Unfortunately, businesses still have a way to go. Just under half (49%) of participants in the Regus Work-Life Balance Index say employers are doing more to help reduce commuting. It's a sizeable percentage, and higher than the previous year, but, even so, more than half of respondents don't feel that companies are addressing the problem.
A tool for talent retention ... and more
During a time of economic stress in developing countries, it's tempting for employers to say "Not right now" on the issue of more flexibility. But when key personnel can be the difference between corporate success or struggle, it is crucial to let staff work in ways and places that suit them.
Without flexible working, key staff may leave - especially those in Generation Y who have less corporate loyalty. Moreover, with 72% of businesses globally saying that flexible working improves their productivity, the benefits could extend beyond talent retention.
So the message for businesses of all sizes is: don't delay in giving choice or control over working hours and locations. And whilst we're on the subject, there are a few other elements to consider as well:
• Make use of technology, and of providers that can help you access it. For example, Regus offers products such as video-communication and Businessworld that can help workers to cut commuting and business travel, and work where and when they want.
• Ensure that 24/7 mobile technology doesn't force work into people's personal lives. In research in Hong Kong, over four in ten workers had negative sentiments about the impact of technology on work-life balance. People complained they could never really switch off, even while asleep or on holiday.
• Consider device flexibility (for example, choice of phones and tablets, access to social media) as well as flexibility over working hours and locations. Two-fifths of Generation Y-ers have said this is so important to them, they would accept a lower-paid job for it.
• Learn from the young. The Regus Work-Life Balance Index found that Gen X (born 1965-80) and Gen Y workers (born 1980-) enjoy better work-life balance than Baby Boomers. This may be because they have already asked for and obtained flexible working. In a survey of recent graduates, 70% expected some flexible working in their jobs. Given that, in the Regus index, 81% of younger workers achieve more at work than they used to, compared with 69% of older workers, we could all learn from their example.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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John has been with Regus for 12 years. Initially beginning as Director for Best Practice in London, he soon moved to Australia to help set-up the Regus Asia-Pacific office. After almost five years of development, he moved with the Asia-Pacific office to Hong Kong and has been based there ever since.