COVER STORY Beating Time – Fighting to knock a life out of it

Time – there never seems to be enough of it. The attempt to fit work, family, fitness, friends and the rest into your average week – or life – is increasingly like pulling on pair of pants two sizes too small.
One wrong move – traffic jam, doctor’s visit, mother’s broken leg, child’s tonsillitis – and you find the whole structure starts to crumble. ‘Time squeeze’ seems to have become common dis-ease.
A recent Department of Labour (DOL) report on Achieving Balanced Lives and Employment found long work hours, work intensity and the ability of organisations to keep staffing at manageable levels were significant issues for many New Zealand workers.
“We’ve all been standing on one leg for so long that we actually believe we’re balanced because we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on two feet,” was the rather sad comment from one contributor.
It’s complaint that has its echoes elsewhere in the western world. Across the Tasman, the ‘long hours’ culture is said to be gaining ground in part through the influence of United States-owned companies – and to the detriment of Australian families. According to Australia’s Bureau of Statistics, the average working week is getting longer, third of workers regularly do overtime and 20 percent work more than 50 hours week.
Further afield, the UK government recently launched consultation into the country’s long hours work culture – prompted by the European Commission’s concerns it is out of line with other EU countries. An EC working time directive limited weekly hours to 48 but there is voluntary opt-out provision for Brit workers. Question is – is the opt-out being exploited by employers?
The debate inevitably sees lines drawn – trade union groups stress the negative impact on families/worker health/productivity; employers worry that any regulatory push for shorter hours is just going to make it harder to do business.
The DOL survey here discovered, not unexpectedly, that smaller businesses tend to find work/life initiatives more costly and difficult to implement and that self-employed business owners are most compromised in terms of their own work commitments. For them, the line between work and life is not very clearly drawn at all.
There are those who argue that the line is kind of arbitrary anyway. Work, after all, is life – or at least very big chunk of it. It can also be fun, energising, challenging, social or, in other words, able to meet whole host of personal needs.
That said, it’s pretty clear that the productive time people can commit to it waxes and wanes through life cycles that may involve children, ill-health, care for elderly relatives, age, menopause – or even radical reduction in boredom thresholds that demands some sort of change.
Various recent surveys have identified employee desire for better work/life balance. It’s not that employees don’t want to work but rather the competition from other priorities (not just family needs but personal health, desire to pursue different interests or undertake voluntary work) is sometimes felt more keenly.
However, many are concerned that putting family ahead of work will jeopardise career ambitions. The fact that women are both more likely to take time out for family reasons – and in many cases are more willing to put family first – is seen as major contribution to their unequal representation in senior work roles.
But more fathers are now taking an equal parenting role and also wanting to spend more time with growing families. key issue is choice. The most useful business response is seen as flexibility.
So… can employees have the balance they want, and what are the trade-offs for business?

Flexible and values-led
After taking nine months maternity leave with her first child, Sandra McCormack wanted gradual transition back to her work as procurement manager with Oxygen Business Solutions, “to enable my son and me to get used to the idea”.
After discussions with the company, she started back on three days week, then four in the office and one at home, with the company providing home office support. She welcomed her employer’s flexibility, and discovered it wasn’t exactly the norm.
“I’ve spoken to number of friends who are parents and am among the few working mothers in my group who can say my employer has always been 100 percent supportive of my needs as parent and employee. I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received.”
Not bad testimonial for Oxygen which has also just earned the EEO Trust ‘First Steps’ Award for work-life initiatives. The three-year-old company, formed as spin-off venture from Carter Holt Harvey’s IT infrastructure, says the initiatives have emerged from deliberate attempt to create values-led culture.
In order to develop set of values that would provide framework for the way staff interacted with each other and with the world around them, it held series of focus groups, roadshows and value workshops.
Out of these came some fundamental values which included: “create place where power is shared, where rules and titles are secondary to serving the customer and where our people are valued, respected and developed”.
Last October the company came up with new people strategy which focused on ‘talent’; finding, growing and keeping people. In keeping with this are such initiatives as flexible work options including: teleworking, flexitime, job-share, part-time work, time-in-lieu, career break schemes, plus provision of laptops and remote access.
There is also host of wellness initiatives, including lunchtime yoga and health checks, as well as strong focus on employee learning and development and the creation of relaxing, child-friendly atmosphere.
Benefits for the business included reduced staff turnover (from 19 percent to 12 percent over the course of year), improved productivity, high staff morale and worker loyalty. Customer satisfaction is above target level and financial results are not too dusty either (an EBIT at 127 percent of target).
The company says its reputation as an employer of choice helps attract and retain the best people.
Taking values-led approach to work/life is feature of this year’s EEO award entrants, according to EEO Trust chief executive Philippa Reed.
“Organisations like Oxygen talk about undertaking VBO [values-based organisation] journey and the work/life stuff emphasis seems to be arising almost organically from that process.
“They’re not saying here is the organisation’s vision and strategy – and just on the side, we’ll have these work/life initiatives so people don’t burn out. It’s more that those initiatives are seen as an intrinsic aspect of the vision and strategy – the way things are done around here.”
That applies to the winner of the large organisation category – Deloitte, whose focus on work/life grew from its identification of the company’s ‘signal values’. These include ‘empower and trust’, ‘talk straight’, and ‘continuously grow and improve’.
Feedback from its awards entry last year highlighted the need for stronger focus on ‘relationships’ both within and outside the company. That has been enhanced by new leadership development initiative, according to human resources director Laurie Finlayson.
“More than ever those at leadership level understand that focusing on relationships is not just the right thing to do, it is the most intelligent approach. By putting people first, you reap the rewards of having team of committed, productive people.”
Its award-winning initiatives include: flexible hours and work options; 12 weeks’ additional paid parental leave for men and women; on-site breastfeeding facilities; family social events; rewards for work achievements often designed to strengthen relationships (eg family trip to Australia); provision for improving physical and mental health; and payment for community service work.
Instead of focusing on time as the only real measure of employee productivity or commitment, Deloitte says several years of culture change have created

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