Diversity of Thought Blog

Who wants work-life balance?

work life balance

This month, The 100% Project assembled some of the brightest minds in workplace diversity for a panel discussion held in Melbourne. Moderated by Frances Feenstra, organisational psychologist and director of People Measures, the panel comprised:

  • Scott Butterworth, Acting CRO of Product, Markets, and Support Units at NAB


The panel sought to discuss the concept of flexible working, and its application to the broader workforce. The discourse looked to explore certain questions, including

  1. What do men think about their roles, at work and at home?;
  2. is work-life balance an ideal that only women want?; and
  3. how is unconscious bias preventing equality initiatives?

Typically, discussions on flexible working are made with the working mother in mind. Without a doubt, it is challenging to juggle the demands of parenthood while holding down a career. However, the whole entity of parenthood is often eclipsed by the traditional notion that domestic responsibilities are women’s issues; after all, ‘parents’ should include dads too.

A 2013 report published by The 100% Project revealed the finding that men are wanting to make a larger contribution to their families and the community, but are bound to the constraints of traditional working hours. And while flexible working has become more achievable recently with the adoption of new technology, its acceptance has been met with some resistance – on some level, due to unconscious bias.

In the past ten years, we’ve seen a significant uptick in the term ‘unconscious bias’, which refers to ‘implicit attitudes that we are unaware of’. It’s a term that most in this space would have uttered themselves, but as is the nature of the bias, it takes deeper reflection to recognize those that we still possess. Scott Butterworth recently conceptualised this in an anecdote, where he recalled leaving work early to fetch his children from school, and doing so in a hushed manner. It took a concentrated effort to march back into the office, and to walk behind the talk of workplace flexibility for all.

And why shouldn’t be this case?

Will Irving noted that the best performers need their rest too, using the example of athletes. In today’s workplace, most of us expect ourselves to be on-call 24/7, forgetting that this is a marathon – not a sprint. To be effective and to thrive is to evolve with the times, and we can’t be attached to work for longer hours without striking a balance elsewhere.

While the panel recognises that some drawbacks may include the initial outlay, including costs, setting of boundaries, and changes in management styles, these are the prices they would justify paying for the return of improved employee engagement and consequently, productivity and positivity.

With accessible, modern capabilities on hand to make flexible working policies an achievable reality, simply saying ‘no’ is no longer an option for most organisations. Indeed, it is likely to be less challenging to consider solutions which enable adoption, instead of finding reasons behind why flexible working policies shouldn’t be adopted, especially when observed benefits include greater retention of talent and overall better business results.

With these benefits in mind, flexible policies could assist a myriad of employees in managing work with other life goals and responsibilities, thus making for a more inclusive and diverse workforce. And while inclusivity in itself is a powerful reason, studies extending as far as decades ago have found that diverse working groups create positive outcomes, as seen in the likes of Barney’s 2001 study, ‘Resource-based theories of competitive advantage: A ten-year retrospective study on the resource-based view’, and McKinsey & Company’s 2007 report.

In organisations where men have taken up flexible work options, we have seen some of those rates triple in just a couple of years. Those same organisations have also reported greater employee engagement and productivity, which have been attributed to the practice of flexible working. So when we have organisation-wide adoption of a policy producing tangible business benefits, it becomes harder for companies of today to resist flexible working.

The future of work will be different from what it is today, something which is indicated by globalisation and new capabilities in technology. Flexible working will in future be a significant factor behind attracting and retaining talent, maintaining productivity levels, and painting a positive employer brand. Forward-thinking organisations would be best to explore adoption now, because it seems that everyone wants flexible working.