The Work-life Balance Barometer from Economist Impact explores the sentiment of 700 business leaders and 4,000 employees across the globe on work-life balances, hybrid working expectations, and the arising challenges we’re seeing from such models.

The new business ‘imperatives’ of flexibility, which has become far more of a must-have rather than a nice to have, brought about by the pandemic has resulted in a widening gulf between senior-level and mid-junior-level employees.

The Barometer found 61 per cent of leaders and executives reported an improvement in their work-life balance, starkly contrasting to 41 per cent of employees reporting theirs have worsened. Similar statistics showed for hybrid working expectations, with 64 per cent of leaders expecting a hybrid model post-pandemic, in contrast to only 39 per cent of employees.

Other findings show discrepancies between leaders and employees in terms of job satisfaction, at 92 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

As a leader of a people-oriented business in a people-oriented industry, this data doesn’t surprise me – nor should it surprise anyone else. The pandemic just accelerated the trends that were already happening, including the increased flexibility and lenience for ‘knowledge workers’ – those who think for a living. Inevitably, we’re beginning to see a seniority dividebetween leaders and their ‘people’, and management styles need to be adapted as such.

 The widening gulf

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For all intents and purposes, blue-collar workers work with their hands, and white-collar workers work with their heads – hence the term ‘knowledge work’. The nature of blue-collar jobs often means the physical requirement to be in a certain place has divided them from their white-collar counterparts amid the ‘WFH’ era. They can do their job fully remotely as long as they have the technical means to do so.

Leadership, who may be working from home, a café, or a beach somewhere, can demand workers are in the office or place of work five days a week. The higher up the food chain you go, the more this inequality is the case, even despite technological advances.

On the flipside, white-collar workers such as project managers, operations, logistics, and administrators, are required in an office-based ‘team’ environment.

The pandemic has made workers’ work-life balances an imperative, regardless of their collar colour. But whilst it would be difficult to have rules that apply to all, there needs to be an equality and fairness observed.

 Adapting management

Organisations need to re-evaluate what they are asking their staff to do at all levels and ensure there isn’t a discrepancy or imbalance in fairness between what privileges executives and leadership are given, versus those who implement the work. Not solely for the general happiness, wellbeing and equality of staff, but for overall talent retention. The expense to an organisation for recruiting a new employee costs half to 200 per cent of the former employee’s salary. And once you hire a replacement, it can take over 12 weeks before they are fully trained, comfortable, and productive in their new role.

Where cultural divides start to take place, a re-evaluation of management styles must be implemented. Eradicating micromanagement, personalising company perks (they aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution), creating a culture of trust, and updating HR systems with a focus on diversity, equality, and inclusion (DE&I), will not only make employees as happy as possible – but benefit the company’s talent acquisition and retention, and ultimately, its bottom line.

The takeaway is that you can’t expect to attract nor your retain staff if there isn’t any flexibility or fairness in how all employees are treated. If they sense disparity, they will just go looking for a healthy work-life balance elsewhere – and they will find it.

But take heed – it’s not as simple as saying it’s all office or no office. It’s about looking holistically at what is needed on a role-by-role basis, and then being more open to new ways of working. Collaboration of all levels encourages productivity, creativity, and innovation. That said, some roles are what they are; you can’t build a car, or install IT hardware from your living room!

 The bottom line is the future of work is complex, even before adding automation and AI into the mix. The days of command and control are over. Agility, empathy, empowerment, trust and accountability are key for companies and those that lead them.

David Hunt