Live to work or work to leave?
By Mike Hoffman
Last week, two news stories coincided with delicious serendipity, like lemon and meringue, to create a slice of modern working life.
On the one hand, our fabulous client UWE Bristol published research that made the news, suggesting that time spent catching up on work as part of a daily commute should count towards your working hours. At the same time, PwC announced it was going to “allow some new recruits to work the hours they want”. Wonderful examples of imaginative ways of ‘disrupting’ the traditional working pattern to drive trust and engagement in your employees.
Never mind that the PwC opportunity wasn’t quite the self-defining opportunity the headlines suggested, the idea is an interesting one – indeed, it has been mooted previously. Back in 2014, tax-shy Richard Branson loudly announced he was going to let people at Virgin take as much holiday as they wanted, after getting the idea from Netflix. He expressed it thus:
“It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business – or, for that matter, their careers!”
There’s a casualness of assumption there that bears all the hallmarks of the privilege of the CEO and what makes such policies ill-advised: that conscientious staff with managers on their back should know when their work is “a hundred per cent” being covered, including events that maybe they can’t anticipate. More invidious than that is the tacit implication that taking holiday will somehow “damage” the business or your career. This is passive-aggressive presenteeism that doesn’t show generosity but, rather, a lack of leadership.
If I think back to a typical pattern of my own working day when I work from home, though I will enjoy a lie-in instead of battling with fellow commuters, it’s not uncommon to work through lunch and, after grabbing a late sandwich, to look up to find it’s 8pm. The disruption to the working structures and parameters, rather than presenting opportunities to “swing the lead” instead make people over-compensate. How many times have you said to yourself “I get so much done when I work from home?”
This year, in conducting interviews with Finalists and Graduates, I noted for the first time the prominence of flexible working as something they are looking for in a graduate role. This surprised me at first, because traditionally it has been a benefit associated with older workers who had caring responsibilities outside of work. But today, with the mobility of tech kit and ubiquity of connectivity, white-collar entrants to the workforce expect to be able to work anywhere – and considered it a measure of trust with employers to be allowed to do that.
This feeling has been confirmed in this year’s Universum Global Student Study that’s noticed this desire for flexible working rise by 8% in importance among graduate drivers since 2012. So, far from being largesse gifted by a benevolent employer to a grateful workforce, it seems it is increasingly expected.
To return to our original point, this puts further emphasis on the need for leaders to encourage the ring-fencing of annual leave, not farming it out on a trust basis for people to self-regulate. Because in an era when it is easier than ever to monitor employees’ behaviour and performance through technology, letting people self-manage their workloads is no longer a measure of an enlightened employer. Instead, the progressive employer will recognise the danger of unregulated working to the wellbeing of its workforce and embrace structured leave as a positive good. This means creating a culture that genuinely values work-life balance, and shows it in what it does, not just the policies it enacts for PR coverage.