By Abhijeet Mukherjee
Gone are the days of productivity being measured by the hours employees spend at their desks. Work-life balance today is more than just a fancy catchphrase companies pay lip service to, with no real implementation. Instead, an increasing number of local businesses are realising the inherent value of flexibility and balance in attracting and retaining staff.
Borne out necessity, more employees are demanding flexibility – or at least a choice of flexibility – that enables them to work remotely, especially in a highly congested city like Kuala Lumpur where the daily commute can take up to 2 to 3 hours per day. Technology has exponentially increased the reach and breadth of work that can be performed out of the office, and our local talent know this. They have become increasingly aware of such capabilities and are actively seeking out employers who can offer them this balance.
However, although HR and business leaders recognise the positive results of flexibility measured globally, very few employers are keen to take the plunge.
As with all new corporate culture changes, there is often pushback and an unsurprising lack of faith, adoption and advocacy by senior management. Indeed, the mindset of “but this is what we have always done” reigns supreme among Malaysian businesses.
In fact, according to a recent survey by Monster.com, 39 per cent of Malaysian employees say uncooperative bosses are a barrier to achieving work-life balance, while 37 per cent say their workplace doesn’t provide them with the necessary tools required to work from home. Employees across Malaysia don’t have a great experience with their attempts to balance time in the office with time at home, as nearly half of them said they can “only sometimes” manage. Even if they do get to step away, 42 per cent “constantly worry” about work. A whopping 49 per cent rate their current work-life balance situation as “average”.
The only way to create a systemic change within your organisation towards supporting stronger work-life balance is from the top-down. Altering the culture of a business to promote and support flexibility is not a quick-fix, but a long-term strategy tied to real business goals of both productivity, as well as overall employee engagement and happiness.
However, to get started with championing change, leaders can follow these practical suggestions to find their balance:
- Practice what you preach
Shell Malaysia believes in ensuring that their employees achieve the work-life balance every step of the way by fulfilling their needs throughout their employment. For example, they have two employees who worked together, married and later, started a family. Shell worked with the couple to ensure they could carry out their responsibilities as new parents simultaneously experiencing diversity to benefit their current job roles. As with all new policies, always ensure you have a business purpose for new strategies, and a means of measuring the outcomes,in this instance the breadth and diversity that Shell Malaysia has to offer its employees.
- Ask your staff for guidance
If you’re not sure about the best way to implement flexibility, why not ask the people it affects most to chime in on what they deem would be considered “flexible”? After all, for some employees, the ability to come into work late might not be considered much of a perk. Or perhaps the majority of your staff don’t enjoy working from home – especially in more prominent team environments – and would instead value the option of a trial four-day work week. Bottom line is, ask your employees what works for them and gauge how realistic their desires are against your work operations and needs to come to a solution that works for everyone.
- Give employees clear guidelines to follow for flexibility and ensure they are met
Flexibility comes with responsibility. If flexibility is a new concept, staff need to ensure their timelines and work deliverables are met in order to achieve results. You will realise rather quickly if people are ‘working from home’ but are actually not getting their work done – productivity will suffer and team members will quickly get frustrated at anyone not pulling their weight. Reviews can be initiated to identify the cause of the issue and to implement solutions such as online productivity tracking – or, in extreme situations, retraction of the alternate working arrangements until the workforce has developed sufficient professional maturity to adopt it effectively.
- Provide your staff with the right tools and technology to work remotely
Allowing people to work from home, or remotely, only works if they have the right support to get their work done. Without the systems and technology in place to bolster productivity, staff won’t make use of the work-life balance policies. They won’t feel as though they have been set up for success, which is a lose-lose situation. Ensure guidelines are set, such as checking in for team meetings via Skype once a week, or being online via a cloud-based communication platform, such as Slack, so they are contactable even if they’re not physically in the office.
Put simply, it’s time for Malaysian employers to face facts – “work” in its previous capacity simply isn’t as important as it used to be. Employees are placing more importance on life outside the four walls of the office and ensuring work fits in with life, not the other way around.
If flexible arrangements haven’t worked for you in the past, chances are it’s due to a lack of planning, training and ongoing management of a flexible work strategy. Avoid these pitfalls by taking your time to implement any new strategies for work-life balance, ensuring they are structured properly and aligned to your overall business goals.
Abhijeet Mukherjee is the CEO of Monster APAC & Gulf.