By Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia
“Work/life balance,” “WLB,” “work – and life balance.” “A beloved child has many names,” is a Norwegian saying. But some companies avoid talking about this subject, for fear of opening “Pandora’s box” and hearing how people are really doing, thinking they cannot meet the employees’ expectations and wishes.
A progressive company would want its staff to be healthy and therefore would consider work/life balance as an important factor of its vision for people and performance. However, in an international company it can be quite tricky to set rules of good work-life balance, as the cultural practices vary enormously. Is it ok to arrange meetings in the evenings or start an international meeting a Monday morning? Can you require workers to respond over the weekend? Can you request that someone postpones their holiday due to an urgent issue? It really depends on the culture. In Norway you would probably get a clear and loud no to postpone someone’s holiday and in Dubai it wouldn’t be an issue to work over the “weekend” as their weekend isn’t Saturday/Sunday.
And when it comes to holidays, well, you can’t implement a “company holiday” due to legal reasons. In France workers in large enterprises enjoy eight weeks leave (five weeks + compensation for working 40 hours in a 35 work-week system). In the Netherlands employees in certain sectors work a 36-hour week, and can get compensation in holidays if they work 40 hours. This opposed to the United States that have no law that grants employees holidays—although 2 weeks is fairly common, and Hong Kong where you get one-two weeks paid leave depending on your length of service.
Then there is the individual aspect. Some people live to work, and some people work to live. Baby Boomers and Generation Y may have different views on what work/life balance means. Some people have very clear opinions on what they want and don’t want, and others are influenced by their surroundings. One is not better than the other; all have strengths and something to contribute with to the company. As people are social animals, I believe we are rather influenced by our cultural, company, and family standard. An example: a person lives in a national culture where friend and family time is valued and work should not interfere with this time. She grows up in a family of “over-achievers” and starts working in a company where long hours are expected. Two factors against one—family and company against national culture. And where is the individual preference? It can be hard to differentiate with three influencers at the same time. Because we are often influenced by our surroundings, I believe a company has an ethical obligation to promote work/life balance. In the end it serves the company with retention, productivity and morale.
So what could an international company do?
• Follow the various country laws, and accept them. E.g., a team with people who have eight weeks and two weeks of holiday respectively may feel some jealousy and irritation; this has to be dealt with.
• There needs to be an understanding from the top management of the relation between work/life balance and financial performance.
• Train managers on stress management.
• Agree on a meeting culture that would suit most people; e.g., no business travel during weekends.
• Conduct a survey, understand what most people want to be motivated and manage their entire lives (e.g., working from home, evening meetings, travel).
• In teams keep open dialogues about work load and share and cooperate whenever possible.
• Have honest conversations about what work/life balance means to the individual.
Global context or national context, in the end, a company wants high-performing staff and employees want an enjoyable and healthy workplace.