Braving the Bengaluru traffic every day was taking a toll on Mamata Volvoikar, 29. The commute from her home in Indiranagar to office in Richmond Road and back takes 2 hours. The graphic designer with US-based furniture manufacturing company Herman Miller asked for special permission to work from home whenever possible. Now, three years into her job, she works from home every Friday. Volvoikar takes time off during the day to do her personal work and spend time with friends; in the evening, she Skype calls with her clients in the US.
“It helps me focus more on work if I work from home because I save on the energy and time spent on travelling. On days I travel to office, I’m usually too tired and stressed to think creatively. Most of my colleagues also work from home once a week, as long as the client and manager are both okay with it,” says Volvoikar.
It is not just Herman Miller which gives employees flexibility to work from home. As dual-earning households become the norm in metros, companies like Mahindra Comviva, NetApp India and Mercer are offering their employees the facility to manage their personal life better during the traditional 9-5 working hours, and expect similar dedication to work.
Yesterday’s buzzword “work-life balance” that kept the professional and personal lives of employees separate, is now making way for “work-life integration”.
Balance versus Integration
Inflexible schedules and long work hours consistently produce conflict between work and family, according to a paper published in 2003 by Cornell University titled “Work-Life Integration: Challenges and Organizational Responses”. It suggests that employees should have control over their working time and get support and help from the organization in meeting their personal needs.
Sandyp Bhattacharya, senior vice-president and head of human resources (HR), Mahindra Comviva, a mobile value-added service provider, says, “Work-life balance is when you have a fixed time for work, say 10am-6pm. And post that is your time for yourself or family. Then you can say you have balance between your work and life.” But in the present scenario, you often have to carry work home, or attend to personal chores during office hours—like going to the bank, or taking someone for a medical check-up. “When you can do this seamlessly, without letting your work quality or your personal responsibilities get affected, you have succesfully integrated your work and personal life,” says Bhattacharya.
Another way of looking at it is that work-life balance is about how well employees can manage both without one affecting the other, while work-life integration is when the employer assists the employee in fulfilling both responsibilities through HR policies.
Work-life integration policies constitute a range of approaches like flexible schedules, family leaves, dependent-care time, part-time work and telecommuting.
Work-life integration has become all the more important with global teams working in different time zones. While Skype calls give employees the flexibility to attend meetings from anywhere, various software programs also track the work hours logged on days when an employee is working from home.
Trust is a key issue in making work-life integration a reality, and many HR heads are confident that a majority of the people don’t abuse it. According to Bhattacharya, Mahindra Comviva focuses on outcomes and not on inputs. “We tell our employees that a particular project needs to be done within these many days, but we do not keep a daily track on when are they working, etc.,” he says.
To help achieve work-life integration, employees at Mahindra Comviva can use the company’s concierge service for bill payments, travel and ticket bookings, bank work, courier services, filing tax returns, etc. It also has a tie-up with various merchants such as restaurants, hospitals and gyms to provide deals and discounts to employees; a crèche that allows employees to take advantage of the facility few times a week, or on a day when their child’s school declares an unplanned holiday. One of the unique benefits it provides is support to new mothers—after birth or even adoption—wherein they can work from home and get nanny support for children aged 6-24 months.
Bhattacharya, however, says that any kind of special flexibility can only be either for a fixed period or phase of life—and cannot be a permanent feature.
“Policies supporting work-life integration may not work in all industries. For example, you cannot work from home or attend calls if you work in the assembly line of a manufacturing unit. But the same thing is possible if you are working on software design or even research and development for the same company,” explains Sonali De Sarker, director, HR, at US data storage equipment maker NetApp India.
Bhattacharya is of the view that the work culture of the company also decides the success of such policies. “In cultures like India, where work is also based on social interactions, it may be more challenging to introduce policies like work from home. At the same time, many companies hire freshers to keep the costs low. Freshers need to be hand-held at least for the first few months and therefore cannot enjoy benefits like work from home, without affecting their quality of work.”
Kangan Shekhar, India benefits product head, Mercer, a global talent, health, retirement and investments consulting firm, agrees that “the balance has to be driven by the organization, excess of anything—even policies which support work-life integration—can backfire”. Mercer, as part of its employee-friendly policies, has parental leaves (for both mother and father), annual pet days, family days, and Fun Days with Colleagues (where activities are arranged for employees to take part in, as a team). “This helps individuals check off the activities they are interested in doing as well as build the team by spending time together,” adds Shekhar.
While work-life integration gathers more takers, Bhattacharya is confident that it is only a way to achieve work-life balance. One cannot survive without the other. “Work-life integration versus work-life balance is to us not an either or debate. Better management of work-life integration will create more positive well-being, and therefore an improved feeling of work-life balance,” he says. At the same time, he also says that excess work-life integration or overlapping of work into personal time (and vice versa) can create additional stress, drop in productivity, dysfunctional relationships and weaker outcomes.
As more companies try to find ways to help employees manage their professional and personal lives, formal work-life policies, informal work-life support from supervisors, favourable HR incentives will become increasingly important.