Work-life balance was something of an obscenity in corporate circles during the "efficiency purges" of the 1980s and 1990s. But as the annual global cost of high staff turnover approaches half a trillion dollars and with the global talent gap soon to hit 23 million, the subject has shot to the top of the corporate agenda. Work-life balance isn't just fashionable - it's hot. A plethora of surveys and studies suggest companies that can attract and retain staff are tipped to outperform those that don't by between 30 and 50 per cent. In some instances, this translates into a doubling in shareholder value.
Ironically, it's today's chief financial officers, those who earned their own balance stripes in one of the most hostile and demanding corporate eras in recent history, who are being charged with yet another balancing act: to improve recruitment and retention without compromising profitability.
So how did the working wunderkinds of the '90s juggle family and personal obligations with 60-hour weeks?
St George Bank CFO Michael Cameron has surfed the career wave for the past three decades, holding CFO roles at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank's wealth division and MLC at Lend Lease.
He recently shocked financial circles when he jumped ship from Commonwealth Bank to St George to further his career aspirations at the nation's fifth-largest bank.
Although Cameron says his move had less to do with work-life balance than with St George's strong competitive position, the bank's reputation for being family friendly did influence his decision to take the job.
"Absolutely, I think whenever you think about a potential employer, it is the attitude towards people that is one of the most important issues," he says.
Cameron is a renowned family man. He has five sons, aged 23, 22, 21, 20 and 11, to his wife and teenage sweetheart Michelle - enough to start his own bank. He was 23 when they had their first child.
"I think the biggest challenge with work-life balance is understanding that it is always easier to get a new job than a new family - probably cheaper as well," he quips.
It certainly would not be out of the question for Cameron to sacrifice his career for his family. He's done it before, even when moving from Australia to New York in 1995, then back again.
"I think people thought the New York move was only for my career, which did have a lot of positives," he says.
"But I believed it also had a lot of positives for my family and I specifically made the move to spend time with them and enjoy the experience. I made sure I was out of there by the time my eldest boy started high school, even though it would have been advantageous for my career to stay."
Having said that, Cameron is conscious that major career decisions are only part of the work-life mix. The real secret, as he puts it, is to maintain constant vigilance during the time spent at home. For him, that means adopting a split life.
"The challenge is to not think about work when you are at home," he says. "If you are carrying around office problems, then you are not really engaged with the family. I try to be present at home instead of looking out of a window worrying about what I am doing the next day. I tend not to mix the two. It's like having two lives.
"It's also about quality, rather than quantity. To me, there doesn't seem much point spending time with your family just sitting around watching TV. I always attend the boys' sports on Saturdays and never miss events such as parent-teacher nights at school. Michelle and I make sure we attend all of those important things together, not separately, which would save time. All of that is really, really important."
In terms of personal interests, Cameron enjoys racing sailboats and motorbike riding (he has a few of them), and admits, even when he has time, he can usually find a good excuse to avoid the gym.
When it comes to his social life, he likes to be impulsive. He doesn't believe in planning too closely and leaves himself free to choose at the time. "I think you have to take a simple approach and take every day as it comes. If you plan too much, you set yourself up for disappointment. I think you have to set broad principles based on the important things and understand the role that your wife and children play."
The CFO and chief operating officer at KPMG, Tony Young, has an unusual set of challenges. Not only is he accountant to the accountants, but also he has to deal with three stages of childhood at once at home.
He and his wife, Carolyn, have three children (girl, boy, girl) aged 16, six and two.
Young has been lucky in that his work and family have never directly conflicted. At this stage, his greatest challenge on the work-life front is dealing with the issue within the firm.
"I am pretty passionate about work-life balance because I really believe organisations that accept it as an issue, put programs in place and get this right will be very successful," Young says.
"Clearly, it has become a major factor for recruitment and retention."
At a personal level, Tony believes in applying what he calls the three pillars.
"I try to take a more holistic view and I also am a firm believer in the three pillars to maintain your sanity: career, family and personal interests. While the amount of time you spend on each varies at different times, the ideal is to balance it out over the year.
"Fitness and health wraps around the three pillars because without that, none of the other three are achievable. Also, I guess out of the three, career and family get a slightly heavier weighting than personal interests when things get really busy."
Young tries to maximise time with members of his family by waking up early and working when they are feeling less competitive about his time. He plans in advance for important activities, such as holidays.
"I try to integrate fitness into my lifestyle, rather than see it as a separate box. I run, I put a decent treadmill in the house, so there is no excuse. We go bike riding with the kids and go to the park and play cricket with our son. Basically, we get fit keeping the kids fit - we run them around."
Over the years, however, he has learnt a few lessons. "I think I've learnt not to sweat the small things - not to spend too much time worrying about things that do not matter. I rarely feel as if I am in control, particularly where the children are concerned, but conversely, I don't feel out of control. I think if you feel overly comfortable, then there is always the feeling you could be doing more."
GE Commercial Finance CFO Todd Smith works about 50 to 55 hours a week. Engaged and with no children, he is exactly the type of executive that corporations will be seeking to retain when he takes on the additional challenges of fatherhood.
Smith agrees that the roles of CFOs and their responsibilities have broadened dramatically in the past four or five years as they have adopted the role of chief operating officer and taken on the increased compliance demands of the International Financial Reporting Standards and Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
"I would not say I am chained to my desk but I am chained to responsibility," he says. "I try not to work solely out of my office because it is important to be visible in the organisation.
"Balance is a constant battle, even without children. My job takes up a significant amount of time but I try to prioritise time for my partner, my family and myself.
"I think you have to be very diligent about organisation - organising yourself and enforcing scheduling - planning in advance.
"I try to be flexible to the extent that I can. I hold the weekends sacred but work back at nights. If I had children, that would be different. I would probably work [only] after 7pm or 8pm."
What's his biggest work-life balance casualty?
"Well, my [golf] handicap's pretty high."
HERDING GEN Y CATS
Freshtel Holdings is a publicly listed internet telephony company that employs about 70 people, mostly aged under 30. It's pure generation Y territory. As such, it struggles with some unusual work-life balance issues. At a time when most companies are trying to boost workplace flexibility, Freshtel is trying to rein it in.
When CFO John Coates (formerly chief financial officer of Telstra business Sensis) took up his role in the middle of last year, he inherited a strong research and development culture and an information technology team that regularly worked around the clock, living on a sugar- and caffeine-fuelled diet.
"The team had a very dedicated approach but it was like herding cats," Coates says. "They would work until midnight and then wander in at 1pm or 2pm the next day. Not only was this unhealthy, it was affecting productivity."
Coates put some simple measures in place to help the team better manage its workload and hours, and to bring structure in a way that better helped everyone achieve the tasks at hand.
"The first step in solving the problem was to establish core business hours.
"When staff could choose their hours, people were working from 4pm to 3am. While they had flexibility, they wouldn't be around for critical meetings and were getting burnt out from irregular hours."
Freshtel set core hours between 10am and 4pm. This still gave staff the flexibility to start late or finish early but it meant a team could be accessed during the working day for meetings and other issues.
"If you set the hours between 10 and 4, at least you can bank on people being there between 11 and 3," Coates says.
Nutritional food was also an issue. The company had always kept a well-stocked kitchen, given staff typically worked long hours and late at nights. However, most of the snacks were soft drinks and junk food.
"The staff worked long hours and liked to eat goodies in the middle of the night. The problem was, the team used to dictate the food they liked, things like chocolates and those snakes alive [jelly lollies] were very popular - and gallons of coke.
"We've tried to create more healthy choices by supplying fresh fruit every day and healthier bars that are marginally better on the sugar front."
Coates says the changes help improve efficiency, project management and energy levels across the board.
© Fairfax Business Media
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