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Work-life balance depends on support for managers

11th Apr 2002
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New research from Roffey Park finds that regardless of whether formal policies are in place, it is the attitudes, skills and behaviours of line managers which ultimately determine the success of flexible working arrangements. However, the report also finds that managers themselves are having to work under pressure, frequently trying to meet tighter deadlines with fewer staff, so the task of enabling better balance for their remaining employees is often an unwelcome burden.

The authors - Ingrid Steinberg, Claire McCartney and Caroline Glynn - identify the factors that influence managers' attempts to enable balance for themselves and their subordinates as: the organisational culture and the parameters within which managers are empowered to support balance, the nature of the employee base, and the personal characteristics and skills of the manager.

"Organisations should recognise that they have a moral responsibility to ensure their staff have a reasonable quality of life," say the authors. "For many employees, the organisational culture is embodied in the attributes and behaviours of their immediate line manager. The problem is that many line managers are caught between pressure from above to improve productivity and pressure from below for greater understanding and flexibility. Even the best managers will only be able to work towards balance if they are in an environment where the organisation has demonstrated some commitment to the value of employees' lives outside of work and where the managers themselves are not overwhelmed with heavy workloads."

The report recommends that to achieve more flexible working arrangements, managers should maintain open lines of communication with their teams; they should have a good understanding of the personal situations - as well as the capacity, skills and workloads - of their direct reports; they should demonstrate trust and empower employees to make decisions about how and when they complete their tasks.

To achieve this, managers need to be able to cope with their own workloads and plan, schedule and delegate effectively; they need good communication skills, an ability to handle staff as individuals and they also need the courage to 'push back' up the chain of command by explaining to their superiors when workloads are getting out of control.

In turn, organisations should support managers by adequately staffing departments, by providing appropriate training policies and by helping to create a culture where work-life balance is respected and employees feel comfortable voicing their personal needs.

The research finds that excessive workloads, under-staffed departments and last minute, unpredicted tasks are the main factors which impinge on work-life balance, sometimes creating a vicious circle. Where there are insufficient staff, the remaining employees have to compensate by working longer hours, which encourages greater staff turnover. Yet where adequate staff numbers prevail, and work-life balance is achieved, staff turnover is reduced.

"A loyal employee base is more likely to achieve work-life balance, which in turn supports retention," say the authors. "The problem is that some employees fear reprisals if other commitments are seen to be put ahead of the job and often the need to meet deadlines overrides anything else, so although policies may be in place, in reality they're worthless."

The extent to which a manager trusts and empowers employees is heavily influenced by the culture of the organisation and its attitude to employee empowerment. Some managers are by nature more controlling than others and need help in learning how to let go. The behaviour of senior executives within the organisation also has a powerful impact on whether work-life balance needs are acknowledged and respected.

"There is no 'one size fits all' solution to balance," say the authors. "Formal policies appear to be most effective in organisations with fixed hours cultures, where employees work 9-5 or set shifts. In long hours cultures, a more flexible approach is needed to help people combine work with their other responsibilities or aspirations. It's about giving people the freedom to choose what is best for them within the constraints of the business."

'Work-Life Balance: The Role of the Manager' is available from Roffey Park, priced £40.

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