The real definition of work-life balance
Work-life balance is a term regularly discussed within HR and recruitment circles, but what does it really mean in practice?

In an age where technology not only provides us with the tools to work anywhere or at any time, but almost demands it of us, people are seeking to regain control over their personal time.

The delineation between work and home is no longer clear-cut and our recreational time is regularly infiltrated by work expectations.

The work-life balance promise may be what you are selling to potential employees, but are you offering them what they really want?

SEEK’s Laws of Attraction, an in-depth survey of almost 6000 people across 20 different industries, uncovers what factors were most likely to attract candidates to their next role.

It found work-life balance is a top three driver in every industry, but is especially important for those in healthcare and medical, community services and hospitality and tourism. These sectors consider it their number one priority, more important to them than compensation, career development and job security.

The data also shows that employers need to be talking work-life balance to men as much as they are to women, although men are more willing to trade it off in the early stages of their careers and negotiate more strongly for it once they hit the senior roles.

SEEK’s research manager Caroline North says it’s important to recognise there is no golden rule for work-life balance because it means different things to different people.

The research helps identify who wants what, and ensures your message is on target for the people you want to attract.

“We have the ability to deliver on work-life balance in a way that we never could before,” says North.

“With technology we can invent new ways of working, and new ways of living.”

What we value

Flexible working hours is the classic understanding of what work-life balance means and remains an important way of potentially providing it to your workforce, says North.

But just as work-life balance isn’t just a female issue, flexibility doesn’t just mean part-time. North says you can support the story of work-life balance in many ways.

The option to vary start or finish times may be important to some, however others may want the reassurance of fixed hours with no overtime or to have the option of working remotely.

Compensation for overtime is an important driver, but not everyone expects it to be financial. If the job is project-focused they may be willing to work longer hours when needed on the condition they get some time off in lieu when the dust has settled.

An attractive offering can be the ability to buy extra annual leave or take unpaid leave. It can require a lot of flexibility on an organisational level, but showing candidates you will support their desire for greater control over their time and finances and can help you pull in the best talent.

According to North, one of the big enablers for work-life balance is job location.

Communicating the benefits of a job’s locality – its proximity to other services like banks, shops or childcare, or to something they value, such as the beach, a nice park, cycleways or easy parking - can put you ahead of the competition.

“The notion of flexibility becomes even more important for part-time workers,” says North.

“For someone that says flexibility is a ‘must-have’, that is their engagement with everything you have to offer. It is so important they will scrutinise it.

“So, the challenge with flexibility is you can’t offer something you can’t deliver on, or you will have a revolving door to your organisation.”

A hard sell

Communicating work-life balance is critically important yet can be one of the hardest messages to communicate, says North.

Someone considering leaving their job needs reassurance their life isn’t going to unravel when they join your company.

“A lot of work-life balance comes with trust. You have to earn trust and trust takes time to build up,” she says.

“Work life balance is about enabling them to live their life, not just in work.

“Think about how you can demonstrate to someone in the attraction phase that you can actually deliver that, and it’s not just empty words.

“Show them what happens behind the scenes, if flexible start and finish times are your hook, don’t just talk about it, give tangible examples and let them talk to their manager or their team about how people are using this in real life, to give themselves the work-life balance they need; be it for school runs, personal fitness or just missing the peak hour commuting traffic.”

Creating a community

Miele ANZ sought to develop a sense of whole community within its workplace by tapping in to the multitude of things its employees want.

There is an in-house gym so people can workout in their lunch break and those wanting to further their career through education are reimbursed 50 per cent of the course costs and paid exam preparation days.

Miele is also working towards a new initiative that will enable staff to be paid one volunteer leave day a year in recognition to enable them to give back to their communities.

Miele ANZ’s HR business partner Estelle Polevoy says it can be commercially challenging to offer these types of initiatives but a lot of value comes out of ensuring employees feel work has a purpose.

If they are happier at work, they are more productive and are more inclined to stay with the company for the long term, she says.

Polevoy says Miele ANZ has worked hard to create a culture of productivity and to move away from the old-fashioned counting of desk hours. It invested training to help its employees better manage their time, put a focus on mental health and resilience and now most staff, including the directors, take a lunch break and have left work by 5.30pm.

It hasn’t harmed the company’s outcomes, but instead happier staff are producing better results and staying longer with the company.

Meeting-free Fridays and encouragement to clear their inbox by the end of the week liberates staff to enjoy their weekend without work hanging over their heads.

“Hiring managers need to be open-minded,” says Polevoy.

“If a great candidate comes along and they are requesting flexibility and you haven’t thought about it and aren’t prepared to adjust the way you see things then it can be a missed opportunity.”