For me, the acid test of the firm's willingness to walk the walk came when I decided to take my family off on a sabbatical. My confidence in our culture was well placed, and the partners approved three months' unpaid leave.
Even more astonishing than this has been the number of people who have since told me of the negative reaction they could expect to any suggestion of a sabbatical. Why? Are they so indispensable? Maybe. Are people simply too scared to ask? Possibly. Or is our industry still shackled by attitudes to work that date back to the last century? Could be nearer the truth …
Before Christmas, my son played an angel (irony indeed) in the nativity play and, afterwards, he asked me why there were lots of mummies watching and only three daddies. I explained about work, and he then asked why I had come if the other daddies had to work. I told him that his play was much more important, and he gave me a big hug. So why was I there for that memorable moment when the other working parents were too busy?
During my wife's pregnancy, I was given a book called The Sixty-Minute Father: How Time Well Spent Can Change Your Child's Life by Rob Parsons. Its big lesson was how it is possible to be there for those special times by making an effort to hold back the tide of trivia that steals our time. Try asking yourself (honestly!) the following:
- How much of today's work could have been delegated?
- How much time did I waste on useless emails, crisis management or doing the type of work that keeps us busy but creates no value?
- What from next week's diary could I cancel, duck or delegate?
- Did achieve what I set out to do this morning?
Surprised at the answers? If not, why not? Did you know the outcome the moment you read the questions? If you want a further incentive, just think for a moment what you could do with that time – learn new skills (perhaps an MBA), help with homework, do some DIY or just reduce your golf handicap?
There is a clear, demonstrable business case for promoting work–life balance, and other industries are already reaping the rewards
In his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the seventh habit that Stephen R Covey advocates is "sharpening the saw". It stands to reason that carpenters can saw better if they occasionally take time out to sharpen their saws, and who would disagree that we all feel better when we take time out to relax, exercise or attend to important personal issues?
Taking action need not mean a huge change. Small decisions such as ditching unimportant work rather than missing your child's bedtime help to reduce stress and reinforce relationships.
Although there are obvious benefits for employees, why should firms grant their people greater freedom to match their benefits with their lifestyles, or let them take time off to go to the school play or to take sabbaticals? Recent research from the USA, specialist consultancy Flexecutive and the Department for Education and Skills tells us that:
- Nearly 70% of senior managers who work flexibly perform significantly better.
- Work–life balance decisions drive more than half of staff turnover.
- Three-quarters of employees feel that a good work–life balance policy helped to maintain employee relations.
- A more vibrant culture develops where people have diverse experiences.
- More than half of employees feel that absenteeism and sickness is reduced.
By giving freedom of choice you can differentiate your firm in the market by empowering your staff to work, be paid and develop themselves. Far from management theory, there is a clear, demonstrable business case for promoting work–life balance, and other industries have already begun to reap the rewards from it.
Frank Devoy is a managing consultant in Ernst & Young's real estate, hospitality and construction group.