Getting the Work/Life Balance Right

For many people the daily work/life balance has been defined by the hours spent at the office, shop or factory. You have to work there for a set number of hours and then you can go home and forget about it. Working from home throws all that up in the air. You could now work very different hours and make it a much better fit with school hours for example. It could be a great boon to getting a much better work/life balance. But it might work the other way round. Because your ‘work’ is always as near as your laptop or mobile phone, your bosses or work colleagues might expect you to respond at all hours. When I was a university teacher I remember a paper on the ‘Perpetual Professor’ who because of on-line systems would be available around the clock to answer student queries. My devotion to my students never stretched that far!

If the new flexibility afforded by home working is to be of benefit to both employees and companies, agreed patterns of work need to be worked out. Because people have very different domestic arrangements this may not be a case of all employees following the same practices. It is likely that the Principle of Minimum Critical Specification from sociotechnical systems theory will apply. Everybody will need to agree to some common practices, for example, that on-line meetings are arranged at a time of day to suit everybody (not easy if you are an international company with staff in other time zones). Some companies have also instituted a rule that emails can only be sent during normal working hours (or at least no one is expected to respond to midnight messages until the following day). Beyond the minimum common practices, people might then put in their work hours when it suits them, the rule being that they put in the requisite amount of time per week.

It is unlikely that all the issues about working from home will be resolved quickly. It will require an iterative approach that gradually evolves practices that enable the company to work well and employees to get the benefit of a better work/life balance. It will also require open and transparent communications so that problems can be surfaced quickly and fair solutions identified.

Professor Ken Eason