Working life – balance, blend or bedlam?

According to reports in the German press, the German Minister of Labour has instructed her officials to introduce strict controls limiting the ability of managers to contact employees by phone or e-mail outside "individual working hours". This is not a one-off.  According to these reports, she had previously been encouraging other German companies to do likewise and a number of household names have already introduced restrictions.

>One person’s progressive employment practice may be another person’s misguided attempt to turn back the clock

This has been interpreted as another example of progressive German employment practices that UK employers should be seeking to emulate. But is it?

Let's put to one side the possibility of people getting round the restrictions - they reportedly apply to "work-related mobile phones" which raises the question of BYO devices (which many British employees use, often as a matter of choice).

It is easy to see how incessant communication outside working hours can be disruptive and stressful, especially if combined with an expectation or requirement for an immediate response.  But going too far the other way may also create stress.  I, for one, would rather receive the late night email telling giving me information about the next morning's potential crisis - so I could think about it, and maybe make a start on dealing with it - than be told in the morning that it's all a rush job because contact had been forbidden.  I doubt I would thank the architects of such a policy for making this choice on my behalf.  No doubt some people in the same situation would prefer not to be told because the distraction would ruin their evening and their sleep without necessarily making the next morning any more bearable.  Good managers, of course, know each of their employees well enough to know whether or not to press the send button at midnight.

The common sense answer is that managers need to be proportionate and considerate in their use of out of hours contact.  Of course, not all managers are proportionate or considerate and organisations sometimes manage to prevent them from acting in this way even if they are.  Hence most organisations see the need for policies (that is, sets of rules that govern behaviour).  The irony is that "be proportionate and considerate" can be desperately difficult to turn into a workable policy without creating unwelcome consequences. 

Restrictions on out of working hours access could be characterised as improving work-life balance.  But I think a better term might be work-life compartmentalisation - working time is for work and non-working time is for other things and spill over from one to the other should be minimised.

Last year, the BBC screened "Make me a German", a programme where a journalist and his family relocated to Nuremberg for a week to sample the "typical" German lifestyle. The journalist worked in a manufacturing firm, part of the Mittelstand.  Anyone who saw it will remember that he was told off for texting during working time.  Of course, the incident could have been staged and it helped confirm the (positive) stereotype of the high-productivity German workplace. But let's look at the data.  The 2010 European Working Conditions Survey asked employees whether or not it would be difficult to take an hour or two off work to deal with personal matters.  The results are shown in the chart below.  In Germany, it appears, working time is for working.

Of course, post-War (west) German society was structured on the assumption that most families would have a woman at home at least part of the time - reflected in school opening hours and (until quite recently) shop opening hours.  German workplace culture developed in the knowledge and expectation that employees did not need to be away from the workplace to go to the bank or be at home for the electrician - Mutti would deal with that.  But what about something the employee doesn't want to (or cannot) leave to someone else, such as visiting a relative in hospital or going to the dentist?

It may not be a coincidence that the same survey found that more than half of German employees said they had taken 5 or more days' sick leave in the previous year - the highest percentage in Europe, even though employees' exposure to health and safety risks were below the European average.  There may be other explanations (such as generous arrangements for sick pay) but it raises the possibility that many employees see ein Sickie as the easiest way to escape the working time compartment.

An alternative perspective might be characterised as work-life blend.  Barriers between paid work and other aspects of life are permeable.  It might sometimes be difficult to judge when "working time" starts and finishes.  Conscious and sub-conscious attention to work issues during "non-work time" might be seen as a legitimate component of the reward-effort bargain - in effect, employers pay for employees' creative bandwidth.  Furthermore, employees may well see this as entirely legitimate - provided that employers reciprocate.  A 10pm email may be accepted - even if it isn't always welcomed - if the flip side is that employees have the ability to go to the school play or pop out to the shops at 3pm without adverse comment.  Rules that get in the way of this give and take might be resented by both employer and employee.

The attachment to these alternative perspectives and whether (and how far) they are turned into practice will vary from country to country, from firm to firm, between employees and (presumably) over time.  For example, in a podcast last year discussing the CIPD Megatrends report, Annemie Rees from Purple Beach suggested that different generations may have different views on these issues:

[a couple of weeks ago] I worked with a group in California on the old nut work/life balance and we had Gen Y in the room and then everybody else is not Gen Y and so we had exactly this conversation. At one stage the Gen Y folks went, "Actually we feel quite offended by you insisting that technology's a problem, technology for us is an enabler. It's a way of staying in touch and we have a very different perspective on it.".

What we need to be helping our employees to do is to shift their focus away from trying to manage work and life and actually focus on how you manage your personal capacity. So how do you recover during the day and think about capacity and energy and how you manage that during the day physically, emotionally. So again it's a very, very different mind-set.

This suggests that an out of office rule could be a German export that would not universally be welcomed by UK employees.  We should always reflect carefully on what we can learn from other countries' systems rather than attempting to copy parts piecemeal.  One person's progressive employment practice may be another person's misguided (even patronising) attempt to turn back the clock.

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