Five Important Points About Flexibility And Work/Life Balance

We’re no strangers to discussing the issue of work/life balance here at Lifehacker, and the challenges can become particularly acute if you decide to work from home. Here’s five aspects of the issue that are worth considering if you’re struggling with balancing life and work commitments and/or trying to move to a more flexible workplace arrangement.

Picture by Sean MacEntee

Networking giant Cisco hosted a panel discussion in Sydney today to examine the issues surrounding making workplaces more productive and embracing the potential for more flexible work systems, and it raised a lot of interesting issues. Here’s five highlights that struck me as an audience member.

Flexibility should benefit the employer

As individuals, we often focus on the potential benefits to ourselves of more flexible work arrangements (no commute, availability for family commitments). However, offering that kind of working environment should also produce better results for employers as well. As futurist Ross Dawson put it:

What is required is flexible work structures which bring out ultimately the talent of the people working in those organisations. No organisation fully taps the value of the people working within it. Even getting incrementally better at that would put most organisations miles ahead.

Companies are often slow to recognise this, but that is in part because large enterprises aren’t designed with flexibility in mind in the first place. Fernanda Afonso, national chair of the Australian Psychological Society, explained that well:

Some of the biggest challenges we face is valuing diversity and being able to appreciate that we don’t all think the same and work the same. How do we accommodate the diversity of thinking, working and interacting with each other? Processes and policies need to signal that diversity is valued and how it is accommodated. Human beings tend to think “the way I’m wired is the way everyone else is wired”, but that’s rarely true.

Be active and take responsibility

Your workplace might seem to have an entirely rigid structure, but you won’t know how much it can be varied until you try. Many employees shy away from trying, as Afonso noted:

What can the individual do to set their own boundaries and communicate quite clearly what is important to them? Sometimes, we do expect our managers and our organisations to second-guess what’s going in in our lives and to accommodate that. We need to be active in communicating those needs. There are things that are hard wired that you have to work within, but there’s a growing amount of stuff you can actually be flexible about.

You also need to take some responsibility for striking the balance. Senator Kate Lundy gave a concrete example, noting that while her mobile phone meant that she was constantly connected, being able to communicate with her teenage children (a non-work task) was just as important a reason to have that option:

I’m on my phone a lot, but it’s not necessarily work. I don’t feel like I’m carrying work around because I’m carrying this around. It is about how I choose to control it.

Virtual community can only go so far

If you are working from home, then staying in touch with your office team is vital. Social networking tools (whether public or corporate-controlled) can make a big difference there, but it’s important to recognise that they have limitations, as Afonso explained:

In order to maintain good mental health, there’s two things that human beings need: sensible timing and control, and a sense of being connected to some sort of community. The way in which we’re doing that is shifting and changing. People have got Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, and there is that virtual connection. But when it comes to relationship building and enabling the trusting relationships which will enable flexibility, that part still has to be done face to face and it’s hard to get away from that. At the core of it all, we are still human beings and we are still social animals, and there is the sense of needing to feel connected.

Flexible working is more than working from home

We often associate flexibility in the workplace with working from home and having control over our own hours, but that’s not the only approach. Senator Lundy promoted a different view:

The models are going to be many and varied, and I can foresee many of our country towns having a shared place for telework that will be very social. It’s not just about working from home. The issues of social isolation are really important. Rather than a daily commute, maybe it’ll be a weekly commute and an overnighter and the pattern will change. We need human interaction on a daily basis. To construct work-life models that preclude that kind of engagement would be heading in the wrong direction. Combined spaces will be a really important part of the trend.

That might sound like an appealing “sea/tree change” scenario, but Dawson noted that not everyone wants to leave large cities:

There is the potential for regional hubs to flourish, but it’s not as if everybody goes everywhere. People are still looking for those social and cultural and infrastructure elements that cities offer, and in Australia there are issues like water and other basic necessities of distributed life to consider.

Or as Jacob Murray-White, head of the customer solutions at home program for call centre and communications company Salmat, put it: “It’s not just chucking a couple of rooms in the council chambers in Tamworth. You’ve got to do more than that.”

The rewards should be shared equally

The hidden challenge with flexibility is that it’s rarely made an equal option for everyone. If your boss wants to work from home, chances are they will — but a properly flexible workplace will offer that option to everyone. Murray-White summed up that aspect:

People working from home is already happening. It’s just devolving what is already happening at the executive level and the mid management level down throughout the workforce. That’s what we’re trying to do, but we have a long way to go.

What hurdles have you faced in trying to achieve more flexible work arrangement and better work/life balance, and how have you overcome them? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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