By Dr Lindsay McMillan

Cultural change, rather than prescriptive fads, is needed to improve workplace productivity and ensure Australians are enjoying an improved work-life balance.

At the centre of this approach must be greater flexibility and autonomy for workers. 

But, too often in the workplace the word flexibility is used to spruik the benefits of a new fad, and is often only flexibility for the employer, or alternatively it is used to spin the latest attempt at workplace renewal.

Real flexibility recognises the changing nature of work, the changing demands of the home and the wishes of employees to find workplace solutions that will help them improve their own work-life balance and productivity.

Coupled with this, is a need for greater autonomy for workers - empowering workers to make their own decisions, and supporting them when they do.

Policy fads

One of the many fads floated as the ‘answer’ to workplace discontent is often the introduction of a six-hour working day.

On its face it sounds good, but scratch the surface and it is yet another prescriptive policy that, on its own, will fail to improve work-life balance for many workers.

It fails to take into account workplace culture and behaviour, and on its own does nothing to actually empower workers.

If a worker gets to clock off after six hours, but is then inundated with work emails and work calls, which they feel they are obligated to address, the policy is worthless.

The fact of the matter is that for those who can’t seem to switch off now, the six-hour working day means very little. Instead, employees are likely to see a shorter day to complete the same number of tasks they used to complete in eight.

Employees who answer emails at night and stay back are doing so because of an implicit culture that either expects or rewards overworking.

Cultural change must come first

For these policies to have any real impact on improving work-life balance and worker productivity, cultural change must come first.

Workers must be encouraged to ‘switch off’ when they are out of the office and know that they are supported in doing so.

The fastest way to communicate a cultural change is for leaders to lead by example. Leaders need to make a conscious decision to set a positive precedent – don’t send emails outside of working hours, leave on time and do it loudly.

Inevitably, you will encounter the resistant employee who continues to work over-time, so have a serious one-on-one conversation with them. To be clear – this isn’t discipline, it’s an open and honest conversation that you don’t expect them to work outside of hours and that they their value is not measured in how much overtime they do.

Unfortunately, the underlying assumption in many workplace cultures is that those who overwork are more valuable. However, this is a deeply flawed way of thinking. It neglects the fact that looking after yourself and your wellbeing is the only way to grow and learn as an employee. Nobody improves by burning themselves out.

The Norwegian approach

A good example of positive workplace culture comes from Norway, where it is standard business etiquette not to schedule meetings after 3pm Monday to Thursday, as a courtesy to parents who leave to pick up their children. On a Friday, meetings are not scheduled for after 2pm.

By making this a workplace cultural norm, employees can be confident knowing what the expectations are, and have the real flexibility and autonomy to actively improve their work-life balance.