Happy employees: More than just work-life balance

by Dr. Jörg Herbers
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When talking about work, there is often one recurrent notion: work-life balance. An idea as old as 200 years became trendy in the seventies and is still very current today. However, isn’t the term outdated? Where do we stand today? And what does the future hold?

Balance means equilibrium. The word originates from the latin word “bilanx”: having two scale pans. Which side of the scale is our starting point when we talk about good work-life balance? The term balance is misleading since it suggests that life and work are two opposites of a scale. That equation is too simplified. Work is a part of life, a good compensator for that matter. Work answers the human desire to strive – strive for more money, appreciation, self-realization. The term “work-life balance,” however, suggests that work and life are competitors, which, in reality, they are not. Work is only one area of life, just like family, friends, sports and culture.

More control for a good work-life balance

Thus the problem is not so much work in itself. A study of Germany’s working population surveyed 20,000 people via telephone and found most men in Germany prefer to work moderate full time (35-39 hours per week). One-third of all part-timers would like to work more hours. The 2016 Working Time Report from the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) also found that satisfaction with the work-life balance noticeably drops when working more than five overtime hours, working on weekends or night shifts. Especially frequent or short term changes to the schedule cause a decrease in satisfaction. Consequently, better planning causes fewer changes, which leads to more satisfied employees. Additionally, if employees can influence their work, they rate their work-life balance much more positive.

Simply being able to influence the beginning of a work shift considerably raises satisfaction. According to the BAuA, working between 7am and 7pm is the most preferred. Subsequently, the problem about work-life balance is not so much work in itself, but rather the employees’ lack of flexibility and autonomy.

What do employees need in order to work more autonomously? Can the employee’s desire for flexibility, autonomy and individuality be economically implemented? 

General work environments offer various solutions: working from home, shared workspaces or crowd-working, just to name a few. Sounds great. However, it becomes trickier when dealing with shift work. In such cases, the schedule is more rigid. Employees with certain skills are needed at fixed times and places. This seems to be the limit of employee participation. There’s not much room left for autonomy. The solutions suggested above aren’t feasible for shift duty. However, there are other possibilities for companies in order to proactively include employees’ needs into their planning.

Autonomy in shift work? It is possible!

Employees working for companies with shift duty know from the beginning that the flexibility and autonomy offered by, for example, working from home is impossible. However, in this context, the possibility to express “wishes” is already a great asset. Employees will immediately feel more valued. This would already be a great improvement for the employee and the company. Yet, this does not need to be the only option for participation. If the company deviates from the classic planning process and considers personal differences, it caters to the employees. At the same time, the company profits when taking employees’ individual personal strengths into account. This often results in more motivated employees and a more effective operating principle. 

Participation is more multifaceted than often assumed. Each company has to decide for itself which implementation is viable. For example, employees could be granted a wish-contingent, or be allowed to express wishes for scheduling without limitation. Back-up wishes could also be possible. These wishes could concern days off, certain shifts or overall monthly work-time. Wishes could be granted according to seniority or fairness aspects. A fair distribution could affect only one month, or could stretch beyond that. Using another model, employees could sign themselves up for shifts. However, fairness is a problem with this model: Wishes can be granted according to the principle of first come first served, or seniority. However, someone needs to represent the company’s interests.

Swapping shifts is another alternative and an interesting example. It is already practiced in most companies with shift duty. Many swaps often indicate that the published schedules collide with the employees’ work-life balance. Therefore, they retroactively create the schedule that fits their needs. 

More effort? Not necessarily!

If a planner considers employees’ wishes from the outset, there will be fewer adjustments later on. Of course, a planner can’t grant all wishes, especially if wishes collide. It is then difficult to make a fair decision. It’s not an easy job for the planner, that’s for sure. On top of qualifications, contracts, laws and company agreements, a planner then needs to consider wishes and plan flexibly, all while taking short-term changes into account.

Independent from the solution the company decides on, it always demands more complex planning, especially when a solution needs to be found at the last-minute. A planner, no matter how skilled, can hardly keep up with the increased workload. Too many aspects need to be taken into account. Manual planning on paper is no longer possible with all these factors.  

The planner needs supportive software, so processes don’t have to be adjusted to the software. When selecting a support system the important aspects to consider are:

  • Is the software able to map the problem correctly?
  • Can it find the best solution for the problem?
  • Can it be adjusted easily and flexibly to new requirements?
  • Is it easy to use – for the planner and the employees?

What tips do you have for managing the complexity of shift planning? How do you get employees more involved in the planning process?

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About the author

  • Dr.

    Jörg Herbers is Senior Vice President Workforce Management at Inform GmbH. He specializes in all topics related to staff planning and optimization.

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