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Technology a mixed blessing for work/life balance

Technology can enable flexibility but issues around working culture still inhibit work/life balance for many, research has found

Working Families’ Modern Families Index Employer report, in partnership with Bright Horizons, which was seen exclusively by HR magazine ahead of wider publication, found that tech-enabled flexible working is now common, particularly among men, 54% of whom said it allowed them to work flexibly and remotely.

Half of women (50%) said it enabled them to work flexibly, while 36% said it helped them work remotely. Overall technology was seen as a positive contributor to work/life balance (50%). But there was also a degree of uncertainty, with almost a third of parents (31%) stating they weren’t sure.

The charity's annual report also found that 44% of parents find it hard to avoid dipping into work emails when they get home (rising to 50% for fathers). They do this primarily because of workload pressure (44%) and expectation from managers (32%).

At Working Families' annual conference, which focused on the future of work, chief executive at the RSA Matthew Taylor said that technology can be an enabler to improve people’s working lives at a time when job quality is moving up the political agenda. “I would argue that being interested in the quality of work is inherently political," he said.

"In the past I found that there was no audience for a discussion around the quality of work; it was always undermined by the idea that having any job was better than having none. A Labour government pushed forward the conversation on job quality, and we are now at an exciting turning point for people who care about job quality as an issue.

“But at the moment there is a lot of anger, which is associated with economic insecurity," he added. "This is not about whether people will keep their jobs anymore, it’s because people are worried that their jobs will get worse. Hyperbolic headlines about thousands of workers losing jobs because of technology are causing a lot of pessimism. It’s really important to tackle this pessimism and anger by showing that we can use technology to make people’s lives better.”

Speaking to HR magazine, head of research at Working Families Jonathan Swan said that his organisation's research reveals some grey areas around the effect of technology on work/life balance. “It’s positive, but when we’re looking at whether technology is improving balance it’s not clear-cut," he said.

"For women there’s still an issue around flexible working and tech, as many still feel they need to be seen in the workplace in order to progress. For fathers, our previous research has shown that fathers can actually use technology as a way to hide their flexibility, as they're still working longer hours."

Ultimately the success of technology in improving work/life balance is dependent on how it is managed, he added: “Employers really need to look at the boundaries of flexible working, who manages it, and how. It’s no good to just give someone a laptop so that they can work flexibly if you haven’t explained what is expected of them. There needs to be a systemic approach.”

Working Families' report also looked at flexible working more broadly. It found that flexibility is a powerful tool in terms of retention and attraction; 58% said they would stay with an employer who encouraged flexible working, and 51% said they would recommend an employer who had flexible working policies.

Parents said that flexibility is also a great tool for boosting employee happiness (68%), effort (51%) and performance (55%).

However, Working Families also noted that flexibility can occasionally act as a trap, as people are then unable to find roles that allow them to work as flexibly. Sixty-five per cent of mothers and 50% of fathers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I will stay in my job because I won’t be able to get the flexibility I have now elsewhere’.

Also speaking at the conference, Working Families CEO Jane van Zyl stressed the importance of culture. “Flexible working alone is not enough," she said. "The phrase 'culture trumps policy' really resonates here. Workplace culture and job design will both play a crucial role in making a success of improving life for parents at work.”