Case studies: How employers strike a healthy balance with tech use

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Striking a healthy balance in terms of tech usage can be a fine art. Here's how GitHub, Zurich and Howes Percival are mindful with technology.

Burnout, Zoom-fatigue and blurred boundaries between work and home – in hybrid-work bingo these teething problems would win you a full house. Yet none of them are entirely new concepts.


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Anyone on a global conference call pre-2020 would still know the meaning of Zoom-fatigue, and burnout was coined in the 1970s. Blurred boundaries between work and home have also arguably been increasing since the invention of the mobile phone or, even earlier, since the dawn of teachers marking work at home.

But perhaps what has changed is how employers think about these challenges, and how they strive to create the perfect work/life balance for employees. But does the perfect balance exist?

HR magazine speaks to several companies that have sharpened their hybrid work strategies and are trying to keep a mentally healthy balance.

 

GitHub: Distributed from day one

Locations: 15 (internationally)
Employees: 2,500
Revenue: $200-300 million (2018)

GitHub was created so that anyone, anywhere in the world could work virtually together to complete programming projects. Its collaborative online cache covers everything from Space Invaders tributes to Bitcoin mining. It would be odd then, if the company itself decided to mandate office attendance.

Founded in 2008, GitHub uses a mixture of remote-first policies. It has a lean network of offices, in San Francisco, Oxford, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Hyderabad, and co-working spaces in the US and Australia. Before the pandemic hit, 70% of its 2,500 employees worked remotely. It also champions employees working at a time that suits them.

“We encourage employees to lean into our culture of asynchronous communication and collaboration,” says Nigel Abbott, GitHub’s regional director for NEMEA. “A way in which we do this is through using GitHub repositories and discussions as a way to work and collaborate.”

Information sharing may be the company’s strong suit, but at the extreme-remote end of the hybrid work balance it can be challenging to maintain human connection.

“Giving people the technology they need to work productively is the easy part of rolling out distributed work,” Abbott says. “However, the parameters of what it really means to be a connected business have changed.

“It hinges on leaders being fully invested in distributed work, with a clear goal and purpose.”

For GitHub, this purpose is clear. He adds: “We’ve always understood that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. This ethos formed the foundation of our working culture.

“Our mission is to accelerate human progress by connecting communities all over the world through software collaboration, and this permeates our team culture as well.”

Some of the policies on offer to support employee happiness include a wellness allowance, annual training budgets for employees to explore their interests and a flexible leave policy.

Abbott adds: “We’ve been distributed from day one, so we’ve always known that people can do their best work wherever.”

 

Howes Percival: Invest to succeed

Locations: 6 (UK)
Employees: 300
Revenue: £23.5 million (2021)

Commercial law firm Howes Percival employs nearly 300 people across six offices in central and eastern England. Like many businesses in the UK, the firm used to expect its teams in the office every day. Client meetings were almost entirely in person.

After two years of working through the pandemic, however, it has now fully adopted a hybrid working policy. Staff work wherever suits their needs with a ‘locate for your diary’ approach, balancing their time between office and home.

Partner and head of the employment law, Paula Bailey, says that investing in the right technology has been key, explaining that a significant aspect of its technology push has been to streamline processes.

The firm introduced a new document management system to support collaboration between colleagues, and a new platform, specifically designed for law firms, to manage client relationships.

Bailey says: “To further support colleagues, we launched an online training platform to promote career development while working from home. Through this, we have encouraged our colleagues to learn about best remote working practices and hosted several webinars.”

However, recognising remote working is not always easy, she adds: “We remind our colleagues regularly of the importance of balancing their work and home commitments.

“Our online wellbeing programme provides guidance on mental, financial, physical and emotional wellbeing. Colleagues have unlimited access to a 24/7 online GP together with a range of other health and wellbeing experts and resources to support with nutrition, fitness plans, online health checks and a 24/7 confidential helpline.”

She says technology has played a key role in maintaining social bonds, with Zoom used for Friday drinks, quizzes, and a monthly coffee and connect programme.

Moving to a long-term hybrid working strategy has taken significant technological investment for the firm, but throughout the process it has used employee feedback to shape policy.

Bailey adds: “We believe that this focus on wellbeing has been a key driver to our growth and success.”

 

Zurich: Do the research

Locations: 15 (UK)
Employees: 4,500 (UK)
Revenue: $47.2 billion (2018)

Insurance firm Zurich is well known for staying ahead of the curve with its people practices. In January 2021 it introduced paid lockdown leave for parents and carers in the UK to help balance work with their other responsibilities.

It has also enhanced and equalised parental leave packages, and voluntarily publishes its ethnicity pay gap.

For all such policies, the firm strives to collect data to back them up. For example, since 2019, it has advertised all jobs with the option to work part-time, job share or flexibly.

This has seen a 16% rise in women applying for jobs at the company and a near 20% rise in the number of women seeking higher-paid management roles.

When it comes to hybrid working, the approach is no different. Head of HR Steve Collinson says: “Every policy we implement at Zurich is backed up by employee research, from paternity leave right through to our recent menopause policy.”

The firm has had flexible and remote arrangements in place for nearly a decade, and most of its UK staff already took advantage of some type of flexible working before Covid.

Now, Collinson says: “We are asking employees who are able to work flexibly to spend 50% of their time in the office. We’re not being completely prescriptive on the number of days each week people can do this over a four- or five-week period.”

To help staff with their work/life balance the company has developed a raft of measures. Through its employee assistance programme staff can speak to an independent counsellor and access one-to-one sleep and stress coaching. It is also a signatory of the Mindful Employer Charter and the government’s employer loneliness pledge.

“When you approach the senior leadership team with a new policy, there is no point trying to make a business case focused on the bottom line,” adds Collinson. “This is about showing them solid data to form a business case as to what employees want and need from the business.

“We’ve always been a people centric business and at a time when the recruitment market is so competitive, making sure your team feels valued has never been more important.”

 

This piece was first published in HR magazine's 2022 Technology Supplement. Check out more from Technology with purpose here.