In any career, a big influence on productivity, self-worth, and happiness is the balance you strike between life outside the office and the amount of time you spend at work. As the means to work increasingly become less and less tied to a desk, a debate is starting to emerge around flexible working and working remotely, questioning the merits of the traditional 9-5 office day.
Employees in the UK currently work the longest hours, take the shortest lunch breaks and enjoy the fewest public holidays in Europe. In February this year, the Independent reported that in London 22% of workers are currently unhappy with the amount of time spent at work, with a further 25% unhappy with their work-life balance. This would seem to imply that the London workforce has an unrequited demand to work fewer hours and spend more time with their friends and family. However, looking more closely, it’s easy to question whether the demand for a greater work-life balance actually outweighs wider career priorities.
In the same survey, 64% of people asked said they liked working in London and enjoyed the work they were doing. Additionally, when choosing a job, work-life balance is the third highest priority for a candidate, sitting below work enjoyment in first and salary in second place. It is here where the wider debate needs to be centralised. If priority # 1 is enjoyment of work, # 2 is salary, and #3 is work-life balance, then the choice of most professionals would be a good wage and enjoyment of work with the inevitable long hours and distorted work-life balance being the sacrifice. But is this sacrifice really necessary?
In Sweden, they are experimenting with a 6 hour work day, with arguments of increased productivity and workplace happiness central to the change. This would seem, if brought in to the UK workforce, to give an answer to the median of enjoyment of work, salary and work-life balance. It would also help prevent the fatigue, or "burn out", employees experience when working long hours for a prolonged period. Gothenburg’s Honda factory was the first to make the shift and further examples are evident in tech startups and select public sector jobs.
It is, however, more difficult to find examples in personal client facing careers such as Law, PR, investment banking and recruitment. It would be interesting to see examples of profitability and productivity in careers where client demands and time tables are pivotal to the smooth running of the company. In cities like London, where huge portions of the economy rely on jobs that adapt to the demands of clients, it would be difficult argue that a 6 hour work day would be possible for all sectors. Does this mean that a healthy work-life balance will remain a necessary sacrifice for a successful career? Or is there a compromise that in the mid-to-near future can be reached?
One answer lies in the increase in technological advancements in nearly every profession. We are now at a time where our careers are evermore interlinked with our personal lives. An email at 6.05pm is seldom left to be read at 9am the next day. Being accessible 24hours a day is considered the norm both in our work and personal lives. Regardless of how we feel about this, the trend is unlikely to reverse. Most companies recognise this trend, but few have truly adapted to it. While many people are expected to respond to emails out of office hours, this often isn't factored into their working hours. The notion of the office is still core to most corporate companies. When considered, there are good reasons for this, including company values, ethics, and culture are most alive amongst fellow workers under one roof.
Despite this fact, most corporate jobs can feasibly be achieved without an office. At the risk of simplifying the corporate world, a laptop with company software coupled with a phone, at least tangibly, is enough to perform most day-to-day tasks. If the work-life balance of workers is to seriously be addressed then companies need to recognise that flexible working is something that should be embraced. This can come in many forms. For example on days where there are no external or internal meetings for an individual the option to work from home could be offered. Or if there has been a late night at work, then an option to arrive late, or leave early, the next day.
The Swedish idea of a 6 hour work day will likely strike a positive chord with most professionals in the UK. However, with more and more people taking their jobs home, a 6 hour day would not likely be the best solution to improving work-life balance. More importantly, a 6 hour work day is arguably not transferable to every career. If companies are to address the lack of work-life balance in the UK, the answer lies in adapting to the changes in the way people are living and working, and offering innovative schemes that allow their employees to work flexibly and happily.
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Read more on how to remain effective while working remotely.