WORK-LIFE BALANCE : Balancing the Workday Diet

When murder and rape are part of the daily workday diet, supportive workplace culture is not just nice – but necessary.
That’s at least part of the thinking behind law firm Meredith Connell’s focus on creating company structure that can stretch to accommodate individual employee needs. The firm’s status as Office of the Crown Solicitor in Auckland means the bulk of its work involves criminal prosecutions ranging from serious drugs charges to murder. It is very demanding work environment that requires “large measure of professional dedication, skill and strength of character”, notes Meredith Connell EEO partner Susan Gray.
Given the fairly extreme nature of the work, it’s only appropriate, says Gray, that the “firm provide all the support programmes necessary to assist staff, not only to perform well professionally but also to maintain sense of balance as far as the rest of their lives are concerned”.
One consequence of this approach is that more than half its female staff and nearly one third its male employees now have work patterns that take into account some aspect of their work-life balance preferences and needs. This flexibility is attuned to specific individual needs – it could relate to temporary situation, change in personal circumstances or in lifestyle priorities.
For instance, one senior staff lawyer whose husband suffered heart attack took many days’ special leave in excess of her entitlement. The firm was also able to accommodate senior male prosecutor who wanted to spend six months at the firm and the rest of the year cruising in the Mediterranean. Another was supported in taking nine months off to recover from chronic fatigue syndrome on the firm’s insurance policy.
One employee who’s enjoyed the flexible attitude and “family-type atmosphere” at Meredith Connell is Joan Taylor. Now in her mid-70s, she first worked at the firm in 1949 and still puts in couple of days week doing legal library work. The mutually agreed phased retirement means she can still add value at work whilst having the freedom to build up outside interests – such as her involvement in the University of the Third Age.
The firm’s own work history goes back to 1921 when it was founded in Auckland. Over the past six years, its workforce has doubled and there are now 21 partners and 139 staff – more than two thirds of whom are women. Its HR function is shared between the CEO, finance managers and partners, with the latter largely responsible for leadership, morale, professional development and team management.
That means there are very few global HR directions – every person in the firm is managed on an individual basis, but strong sense of belonging is engendered through the work culture. How this helps to shape and define the organisation was highlighted to staff in series of ‘culture seminars’ earlier this year.
Some of the pragmatic aspects of this include generous leave provisions – the birth of new baby earns an extra week’s paid leave and new parent with primary care responsibilities gets six weeks’ paid leave. Plus there is paid study leave and 10 days of special (sick) leave.
Employees are also looked after healthwise with weekly subsidised yoga on site, flu jabs and EAP support, while sense of inclusion is engendered through series of social, sporting and family events. More uniquely, there’s very tangible $2000 annual reward which goes to someone who has displayed exemplary service or loyalty.

The payback
Staff retention is big issue at Meredith Connell. The nature of its work means the firm has to recruit and train people with out-of-the-ordinary skill sets and personalities. It takes seven years to train professional staff to the level needed for High Court jury trials.
Support staff also have highly specialised skills – most of which are gained on the job. Here too, personality profiles are important as they’re often exposed to stressful photos, pictures and testimony during evidence preparation.
All of which makes retention fundamental to the firm’s wellbeing. The good news is that their turnover for professionals (at five percent) and support staff (15 percent) is half that of the legal industry in general. The financial value alone has been estimated at $360,000 year.
The partners see direct link between work flexibility and low staff turnover. In particular, the parental leave policy has been very successful in retaining women staff. It can also boast low rate of absenteeism and recruits primarily by being an employer of choice.
Last year, it earned that accolade at the NZ Law Awards. This year it has earned the EEO Trust’s Large Organisation Award.

Choice is power
They may differ in scale and structure but both the large and small-to-medium EEO award winners share common element of work flexibility success – an approach that’s non-prescriptive and focused around individual needs.
Conversa Global is research consultancy that has just 18 staff in its Auckland office, though it employs some 400 on sub-contract basis in 55 countries. Its rationale for kicking off work-life programme had lot to do with making distinction between ‘busyness’ and productivity.
Tagged as one of the Fast 50 of New Zealand companies undergoing rapid expansion, it was in danger of substituting long-hours work culture for real targeted outcomes. This, as director Donella Parker points out, presented some real problems for management. For starters, you can’t coach someone to achieve more if they already feel “maxed out”. Bad habits develop around working long hours to keep up but the culture becomes one of busyness rather than achievement.
To turn all that around, the company started in 1997 with review of what was needed to make the company successful. It identified and clearly articulated what each individual did on daily basis and how that contributed to the company’s financial success. Out of what was very consultative process came remuneration strategy based on outputs; an education budget with individual allocations on yearly ‘use or lose’ basis; and philosophy that embraces work-life balance.
Its initiatives in this area are much more concerned with how the company works rather than what is formally in place, says Parker.
It’s all about deliverables – what the company commits to with clients and what employees commit to in terms of the work they choose to take on. It’s up to the individual to integrate their priorities so they get the work-life balance they want.
For the system to work everyone has to have very clear understanding around what outputs are required and the focus is on achieving those, says Parker, rather than just working hard.
In terms of flexibility, staff can define exactly when they will or will not be available for work – and mobile or remote access is provided when needed. Other initiatives are related to training and education (budgets can be spent on personal and professional development or areas that support balance like getting someone else to clean your house) and health (nutrition advice, gym membership, fresh fruit at work).
It’s system that’s working well for the company. In the past five years, the company has experienced revenue growth of nearly 500 percent – and no one has left to work for competitor.

First Steps
Fewer sickies, more satisfied workforce and happy, more productive client are among the paybacks of introducing work-life initiatives for maintenance outsourcer ABB Kinleith.
Part of internationally based ABB, it has provided maintenance and stores for the Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill since 2003 and now includes 120 waged employees and 55 salaried staff. Faced initially with low morale from the outsourcing process initiated by Carter Holt Harvey, the company carried out internal consulting to come up with its own vision, values and goals.
Out of this sprang various work-life initiatives including flexible work patterns based on two structured 10- and eight-hour rosters. There is provision for ex

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