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Weigh up the balance

Weigh up the balance

Companies that support employees' life-work harmony are finding that their efforts reinforce a stronger brand and reputation.

In tough times, many businesses think they cannot afford to offer work-life balance programs. Experts and leading businesses think they can't afford not to. Such programs improve morale and productivity in a workforce - particularly important when staff are unsettled by a reduction in numbers or reduced working hours. Even workforces unaffected by the squeeze benefit.

ConnectEast, the owner, builder and operator of Melbourne's newest toll road, EastLink, assumed its staff was happy when it surveyed them two years ago. It had the fast-growing, optimistic culture of a start-up, combined with the momentum of meeting construction targets early. But when it conducted a "vertical-slice" survey of its staff, it found a staggering 86 per cent were unhappy with their work-life balance.

"As a greenfield organisation, we had attracted a lot of people with different experiences so we leveraged off that - asked them what had worked for them at other organisations," ConnectEast group human resources manager Michael Werle says.

The resulting suite of policies includes 12 weeks' paid parental leave, time-in-lieu, job sharing and shift-swapping, a 48-52 scheme (staff apply for four weeks of unpaid leave and annualise the impact on their salary) and support for corporate staff who need to work from home.

There is a progressive range of leave entitlements, including for emergency services, blood donation, ceremonial reasons and a community day (interested staff recently spent a workday planting trees along the Mullum Mullum Creek, near the tollway). A sick leave bank, in which healthy staff can donate excess leave to seriously ill colleagues, is also being considered.

Take-up of the provisions has been widespread. "New things always come up - people offer suggestions," Werle says. "We're keen to build work-life goals into individual performance arrangements to try and promote that in the business."

The turnaround in staff satisfaction has been dramatic. In a recent survey of staff by HR consultancy Hewitt Associates, 77 per cent said their work-life balance was good and 85 per cent said policies made the work environment positive. Unplanned absences, which are costly and disruptive for business, are down to 4.6 days per person a year (half the workplace average). Attrition at the organisation's 24-hour, seven-days-a-week contact centre, which expects high turnover because of an often young and mobile workforce, is about half the industry average at 18.8 per cent.

Two years ago, ConnectEast advertised for an accountant and received four applicants, Werle says. In July, it did so again and received more than 300 - a result of its reputation as a progressive employer, not just the downturn, he insists. In June, the organisation was recognised as a fair and flexible employer by the Victorian government.

Investors are also pleased. "At the annual general meetings, unitholders ask questions about the organisation and always seem to be pleased to know that they've invested in a good employer," Werle says. "We've worked at building employment brand and reputation."

Receptionist Lisa Latham, for example, went on maternity leave in August last year and returned part-time in May. "ConnectEast was keen to have me back, so I told them the hours I wanted to work and they worked around that," she says. Another part-timer who could fit around Latham's hours was hired.

At many companies, there can be a gap between rhetoric and reality as HR policies are embraced less enthusiastically by line managers. However, the ConnectEast program is underpinned by a culture of trust and managers who themselves take advantage of the flexibility, Werle says. "People are astute. They know what they need to do from a personal and work perspective."

What the experts say

Barbara Holmes is the founder and director of one of Australia's longest-running dedicated consultancies, Managing Work-Life Balance International. Law firms, food manufacturers and health-care providers are among the businesses that use her advice and programs.

01 Understand what employees need to manage their work-life balance and be productive. It's about needs, not wants.

02 Focus on mutual responsibility - the needs of the employees, the business and the teams in which they work.

03 Clarifying these priorities will help introduce strategies, programs and policies that give the best return on investment.

04 Educate managers so they have the skills to handle both getting the job done and giving staff the flexibility they need.

05 Implementing a program provides bottom-line results: staff's improved ability to balance work and life, particularly through flexible work, increases employee job satisfaction and discretionary effort, and reduces absenteeism and staff turnover.

06 Use the downturn and any staff reduction to focus on job essentials and get rid of some of the busy-work. Can jobs be redesigned? Is technology being used to its best advantage?

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