Help staff achieve a good work-life balance to build on success

In the war for talent, IT solutions firm IBM uses work-life balance arrangements to compete

The significant shift in the UK’s population demographics predicts a major skills shortage. Unsurprisingly, employers’ ability to attract and retain key skills is paramount. A survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters published in July 2007 found that over 92% of graduate recruiters believe they should address work-life balance as an issue to engage successfully with today’s Generation Y graduates. In addition to this, the population is growing and ageing.

At IBM, a leading provider of IT services and consulting, with over 355,000 employees worldwide, around 20,000 of which are in the UK, work-life balance is part of the company’s culture. We recognise that offering work-life balance makes good business sense. It retains key staff, attracts talent and offers choice to the business and employees. For more than 12 years, IBM has been a leader in flexible working, pioneering the notion that it is available to all employees, not just women with young families. And ßthe majority of its UK employees now have the flexibility to work from home.

Flexible working options offered by IBM UK include annualised, term-time and compressed hours, job share, sabbaticals, and mobile and home working. These options retain key staff. Every request is considered, balancing the business needs with those of the individual. One managing consultant in IBM’s consulting division, for example, has worked reduced hours for the last three years. As well as giving them more control over managing their life outside of work, it also has benefits for the business in terms of increased loyalty. Working flexibly in a client-facing role has not impaired career progression either – they have been promoted while working these reduced hours.

People are the fabric of IBM’s business and in such a dynamic industry it needs to attract the best talent. Offering work-life balance arrangements proved influential for a graduate who had to decide between a job offer from IBM and pursuing a PhD. IBM offered to sponsor an equivalent qualification (EngDoc) allowing them to carry out academic research and join IBM’s software group in development while working annualised reduced hours.

IBM’s On Demand Community, one of the world’s largest corporate volunteer initiatives, also contributes directly to helping staff achieve a better work-life balance, in part due to the company’s flexible working policy. This approach provides online ready-made tools, training and resources to help staff find volunteering opportunities in their area, matching their professional skills and level of commitment to suitable projects in community organisations. In November 2007, the On Demand Community celebrated its 100,000 registrant since launching in 2003, devoting more than six million hours volunteering with charities and schools.

But as the pace of change is relentless, we cannot afford to stand still. Our work-life balance offerings have to remain innovative. To this end, IBM is piloting flexible phased retirement, combining recent legislative changes with its flexible working options. This retains key employees longer, easing them into retirement over a one-to-three-year period, giving them the scope to transfer skills and knowledge before retirement.

But what are the results of such work-life balance innovation across IBM? A recent worldwide staff survey showed that 73% of employees valued the work-life balance that IBM gives them, compared with 49% three years ago. In the UK, over 62% are eligible to work from home, 6% of the workforce works reduced hours and, this year, IBM won three categories in the Target National Recruitment Awards for Graduates – Top graduate employer, Most outstanding contribution to diversity, and Most popular graduate recruiter in the IT and Communications sector.

So it seems addressing work-life balance issues does indeed make good business sense.

Anouska Wilson is HR consultant at IBM UK


Best practice tips

  • Executive sponsorship is essential.
  • A culture of trust is paramount: measure performance both on contribution and on the value delivered to clients’ success.
  • Communicate work-life offerings, role models and share success.
  • Provide technology and support for staff.

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