Getting the balance right

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am

While the concept of work-life balance appears to be taking hold within the corporate cultures of many businesses in Hong Kong, those promoting corporate social responsibility believe this concept could soon be outdated. The latest trend overseas and among the younger generation of employees is increasingly towards life-work balance, with the emphasis on 'life'.

Shalini Mahtani, founder and chief executive of non-profit organisation Community Business, which has spearheaded the drive for promoting work-life balance in the city, believes Hong Kong has some catching up to do.

'We're too late in talking about work-life balance. It has been observed that with the younger generation, life comes before work and work fits around what they want out of their lives.'

The group's most recent study of employees in India and China released in June found that in the latter, employees who felt the pressures of an excessive workload for an extended period of time were more likely to leave their jobs, particularly with the younger generation who were more at ease with taking time off in pursuit of their hobbies.

The study also found the younger generation was more impatient with achieving their career goals, and if these were not satisfied within a defined time, they would be more likely to change jobs.

Not only are they in search of grander job titles and bigger pay packages, they are also fickle, and lack loyalty to their employers.

In Hong Kong, with businesses competing for the same talent pool, organisations are increasingly trying to sell themselves as 'employers of choice', with policies that address employee well-being and work-life balance issues.

Hong Kong employers also face keen competition from other countries as senior personnel from multinational companies are increasingly looking to relocate to other Asian countries.

Benjamin Hung, chair of Community Business leadership team and head of consumer banking at Standard Chartered, said promoting work-life balance was essential to creating a long-term sustainable employment market.

'Hong Kong's employment market is good and there is the ability to attract good people, but I am trying to convince the wider business community to be more competitive than Singapore and Thailand.'

Flexible work arrangements and implementing a five-day working week are some of the measures that could increase competitiveness.

'I don't think shorter working hours would compromise our competitiveness. Look at London. It is a very successful financial centre and they work five-day weeks.'

Mr Hung believed the importance of work-life balance was picking up, but not fast enough. A survey by Community Business last year found that 65 per cent of those companies surveyed had no intention of implementing a five-day week.

'The stumbling block is at the managerial level. The culture needs to change. For example, at dinners, do you talk about these issues or do you talk business?'

Mr Hung said Hong Kong's excessive work demands were seeing an increasing number of people in the 35 to 41 age range opting out of the workforce.

'That stage in life is most stressful to the individual. You have your kids, career and property, and that is the time you start to think about your life.'

ABN Amro has instituted a series of employee wellness programmes since a global survey of its workforce in 2005 found that work-life balance was one of the priorities staff wanted the company to address.

David Cross, head of services at ABN Amro, said addressing these concerns was important to promoting sustainability and reducing staff turnover. The company was trying to position itself as an 'employer of choice', to increase staff retention rates and to be more competitive in attracting talent.

Programmes have included non-work related activities such as sport, dragon boating and book fairs. The company has offered health, nutrition and yoga classes, and sends fruit baskets to all departments regularly. Mr Cross said the programme had helped improve staff morale and increased employee engagement. In turn, staff dealt better with clients.

While he believed the life-work balance phenomenon had not yet happened in Hong Kong, he acknowledged that these considerations had to be borne in mind.

'Ten years ago, long working hours was an issue. The debate has now moved on to air pollution and quality of life. Although in India and China, people are still more career oriented [than in western countries], more individuals are making life choices.'

Global public relations company Text 100 has implemented a policy of 'duvet days' for many years. Employees can take a day off with no questions asked twice a year, provided that the day is not tagged on to the end of their annual leave and that they can be reached by phone.

Text 100 managing consultant Jeremy Woolf believed demonstrating the commitment to staff was important and successful in staff retention.

'We have had 100 per cent staff retention in the past 18 months. That is remarkable in a business where there is a high turnover.'

Another new incentive is summertime leave, where staff can get two afternoons off between now and the end of September. Mr Woolf said the response had been overwhelming, with requests pouring in as soon as a message was sent out.

He believed addressing work-life balance was important as life choices were becoming increasingly important. 'More and more people are turning to part-time [work], and there is a trend within the workforce where in time, you might feel that a 20 hour-week is a career.'