Don’t let workers lose their balance

Attracting and retaining key staff is more important than ever in a recession, says Hertfordshire County Council’s Alan Warner

In times of economic hardship, should the soft fluffy stuff that HR normally promotes be ditched? Employees, after all, start thinking about ‘a’ job rather than ‘what’ job and turnover typically slows down. So why should HR go through the inconvenience of introducing work-life balance practices and policies? The answer, of course, lies in the rationale for having such an approach. Nice to have is a luxury. There is nothing wrong with that if you can afford it and if it works for you. The harder edge comes with the business case. For example, the economy will not be in a recession for ever, and, therefore, we as employers need to ensure we are ready when we come out the other end.

The demographic age time bomb will not have gone away and thousands of people will be retiring over the next five years or so. This leaves the issue of who will replace them. There will continue to be competition for talent and employers will need to be sure they are well placed to attract and retain their share.

Younger people in my organisation talk about their desire for career progression and to be doing a job that is worthwhile. They also expect to be paid reasonably and given enough time for a life outside work. These bright and competent employees are the next generation of managers and leaders, and are ready to build on what they have learned during their education. Employers focused entirely on recession-inspired retrenchment, however, might not be the best advert for attracting valuable staff they may later depend on to get them through these difficult times.

The more numerate among us can turn the business case into figures. Systems and processes can help organisations stay vibrant and successful but, by and large, it is people that make the most difference. Organisations that tailor benefits packages to suit individuals are more likely to increase retention. At Hertfordshire County Council, we have won awards for adopting this approach with care workers. By taking a flexible attitude towards working patterns and leave arrangements for our carers – some of whom were struggling to juggle work with their personal caring responsibilities around ageing parents, sick partners or children – we retained experience and expertise and saved ourselves being hit by extra recruitment costs.

Although work-life balance can be pigeonholed as ‘flexi-time’ and ‘working from home’ and, while of course, these perks play their part, they are not the whole picture. For instance our benefits package includes gym discounts, childcare vouchers, cheaper holiday insurance in order to support our ethos. But what happens next? Do we say we have covered off work-life balance or do we try to take it to another level? The answer has to go back to the business case. Employers need to be racking their brains to keep their employment packages relevant and connected to the people who work for us. Some of this is probably going to be about workplace comfort and facilities, not just packages.The physical working environment also needs attention: drab and grubby versus light and clean will influence thinking. Does our workplace technology possess anything like the functionality of our home systems or even our mobile phone? Give paperless people the equivalent of chalk and a slate and they may feel inclined to go elsewhere. We will need to continue to tailor and adapt packages, but that has to go beyond into the total employment experience.

Taking our eye off the ball in a recession could mean it takes longer for us all to come out the other side. Work-life balance is not just for wimps – it makes good business sense.

Alan Warner is corporate director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council

  • Employers reliant on recession-inspired retrenchment may have trouble attracting and retaining quality staff that they will inevitably need in order to tackle the challenges ahead.
  • To improve employees’ work-life balance employers must establish what keeps benefits and working practices relevant for staff.
  • Flexible attitudes towards working patterns can help staff manage their caring responsibilities, and, therefore increase retention rates.