Careers: Balancing more than the books

Work-life balance - the modern-day challenge of juggling career demands and personal life. Cathy Wallace asks what employers can do to help.

For many in the British PR industry, 2009 has not been the year of the pay rise.

The pressures on businesses caused by the global economic climate mean rewarding staff financially is often nigh on impossible. But a largely unintended consequence of the recession is that companies are now focusing on helping staff with the vexed question of work-life balance.

Research from the CBI business group, along with recruiters Harvey Nash, recently found two-thirds of UK employers were helping staff change their work patterns through mechanisms such as flexi-working, extra holidays and reduced hours.

Flexible approach

In some ways, the UK PR industry is ahead of the curve. In the PRWeek Best Places to Work Survey 2009, 85 per cent of respondents said they offered staff the option of flexible working. However, in many cases 'flexible working' is limited to allowing staff to work from home for a morning if they are expecting a delivery.

'It is fashionable to say we should all be able to flexi-work,' says Sue Grant, founder of tech agency Grant Butler Coomber. 'The realities are still being worked through at many agencies.'

Truly helping staff embrace a work-life balance that enables them to meet their professional goals and lead fulfilling personal lives is not easy.

Client demands and new business pitches mean it is not always feasible for staff to leave at 3.30pm to pick up children, or work three- or four-day weeks. Colleagues may also become resentful of the working parent who leaves the office - and an overflowing in-tray - at 4pm every day, leaving others to pick up the overspill.

Betrayal of trust

Then there is the issue of trust. Agencies may be reluctant to allow staff to work from home if they have had bad experiences in the past. 'We once had a guy who asked if he could work from home so he could "hammer the phones", when what he actually did was hammer the beer taps in the local pub,' recalls Grant.

'Another agency used to let its directors work from home on Fridays, until the realisation dawned that the system was being abused by some, thereby ruining it for the remainder.'

Despite the challenges, PR agencies are starting to work around these problems. 'The most important thing is to consider all views - those of the flexi-worker, colleagues, the employer and clients,' advises Grant, who says she approaches requests for flexible working on a case-by-case basis.

Sacha Deshmukh, CEO of Engine, where staff are supported to work from home, says: 'Culture, technology and ways of working are all key to making the balance rewarding for everyone involved.' Like Speed Communications (see case study overleaf), staff at Engine can connect to the company server from any location with an internet connection.

This means they can work on the move at a moment's notice, without having to plan ahead or email themselves legions of documents before they can work out of the office. 'It involved investment in the best technology, but it's worth it and it also means we have a team connected to how people in the country as a whole lead their lives,' says Deshmukh.

Life coach Elizabeth Lovius, who works with PR agency Kazoo, says helping staff achieve a work-life balance is one of the best ways a company can make employees feel valued. While requests for flexible hours come mostly from working parents, agencies should also look at how they can support child-free colleagues.

Quality of life

Claire Soutar, HR director at Waggener Edstrom, says: 'When we ask staff how we can help them with work-life balance, their focus is more around wellbeing.' Requests from staff for a bike loan, for example, led to a Ride to Work scheme at the agency.

Wag Ed also gives staff money towards improving work-life balance. 'We give them a little extra every quarter so they can join a gym, or go and see a show, or even just spend it in the pub,' says Soutar. 'Rather than offering gym membership, we let employees decide how to use the money.'

THE LAW - FLEXIBLE WORKING

Parents of children aged 16 and under, parents of disabled children aged under 18, and individuals caring for a partner or relative have the statutory right to request flexible working arrangements.

These employees can request to change the hours they work; change the times when they are required to work; or work from another location or from home for all or part of the week.

Once a meeting has been held to discuss the request, employees must be notified of a decision within 14 days. Employers must give a written confirmation of the new arrangement.

If a request is refused, employers must give written reasons why it is not possible to grant the request, and inform the employee of the appeal process.

There are only a limited number of grounds under which a request may be refused, which include a detrimental impact on performance and quality, and the inability to reorganise work among existing staff.

If the employee wishes to appeal, they can take the case to a tribunal.

HOW WE DID IT - Three PR agencies outline their solutions for a better work-life balance

CIRKLE COMMUNICATIONS

Solution: Freedom for account directors

Most staff at Cirkle, from account managers upwards, work from home on Fridays.

Founder Caroline Kinsey has also decided to scrap set holidays for all account directors, allowing them to manage their own diaries entirely.

'They now have the freedom to completely manage their own time, so they can juggle the work-life balance,' says Kinsey.

'What we have effectively done is make them all "business owners" of their own income streams and given them the same level of flexibility that is normally only afforded to people at that level.'

Louise Lloyd, head of consumer PR at Cirkle, says: 'This freedom means I can continue doing my job without missing out on time with my baby.'

It is not just holidays Lloyd is allowed to manage.

'I have complete control over my working day, so if I want to go to a toddler group then come in later, this isn't a problem. Ditto if I take a long lunch to meet up with my baby for a picnic in the park,' she says. 'Working freedom simply means that if I want to log on to do that report after I have put the children to bed, that is my choice.'

Kinsey says she feels trust is the glue that holds the employer-employee relationship together, and that if you trust your work force you will get the best from them: 'Trust builds passionate, loyal employees with a much greater sense of personal responsibility for the success of the business.'

KAZOO

Solution: Life coach

All staff at Kazoo have regular sessions with life coach Elizabeth Lovius. As well as running whole-agency sessions to help set team goals and review progress, Lovius holds one-to-one sessions with anyone within the company, from receptionist to MD, who needs help with their work-life balance.

'Staff feel invested in when the company is willing to pay someone to help them grow, professionally and personally,' says Lovius. 'Every young parent I see has work-life balance issues. When people are in the right balance they perform better.'

Jessica Newsome, board director of Kazoo, says since she joined the company five years ago she has had several sessions with Lovius. 'It's great having someone to talk to who is completely independent. I think everyone, even people who are a bit sceptical at first, come out feeling happy and positive,' she says.

As a result of this input, staff are able to plan working arrangements that suit them best. 'We have a senior account manager who joined, had a baby and asked to come back part time, so with Elizabeth's help we were able to factor that in,' says Newsome. 'Another board member comes in early and leaves at 4.30pm to be with her children.'

In fact, the entire board has a family-friendly approach, born of experience. 'I am the only board member who has not had a baby in the past few years,' says Newsome.

SPEED COMMUNICATIONS

Solution: Mobile working

New technology and the nature of PR means staff really can now work on the move.

Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington, who launched Speed Communications in March 2009, have provided all staff with an iPhone, a laptop, and home broadband.

The technology is set up so staff can access all files and documents remotely, so they can work wherever there is an internet connection.

A policy framework sets out exactly what all staff are expected to produce and when, regardless of where they choose to work.

'Fear of abusing trust is often a barrier to flexible working, but the irony is that people are usually more effective if you put your trust in them and give them the right tools to enable mobile working,' says Waddington.

Waddington also leads by example. He works from Northumberland, where he lives with his family, for one or two days a week - and spends the remainder of the time in London.

'Moving north was rooted in a desire to be closer to extended family and enable our children to enjoy the freedom of a rural lifestyle,' he says.

'It requires personal discipline to make it work, but when it comes to 6pm on a Friday and I can be surfing at the coast with my kids or out walking in the countryside, it makes it all worthwhile.'

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