Mary Fitzpatrick: It’s not about work-life balance, it’s about work-life integration

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We believe that diversity in the workplace is crucial. A diverse workforce leads to diverse thinking and diverse thinking leads to efficient problem solving and innovation.

In order to attract, nurture and retain a diverse workforce, one of the most important areas to have a clear policy on is what is often called ‘work-life balance’. It’s something which an increasing number of job candidates are asking us about directly when they consider whether they want to come and work for us, and it is fast becoming a top priority in the workplace. Any company which aims to become an employer of choice must build this into their culture.

Our society is one in which many people are working harder and longer than ever before. In the last ten years technology has changed the way we work, leading to an ‘always on’ culture where location is irrelevant to connectivity and access to content. This means that expectations about availability outside normal hours have increased. Social and technological trends are shaping work and jobs to the extent that being ‘at work’ is being disassociated with a physical location. Gone are the days of nine to five and the line between work and life beyond work is becoming more and more blurred.

At GE Capital, we recognise that employees are real people, not human resources. We know that real people have families and may well have significant commitments such as caring for an elderly relative or looking after two or three children. We understand that people have a life beyond work and that many people feel they are walking a constant tightrope, in trying to balance their work and personal life. However, the phrase ‘work-life balance’ suggests conflict, with two roles vying for position. The risk of viewing these two roles as in competition is that people fulfil neither role to the best of their ability.

Emerging thinking suggests that we should view this in a different way – namely, as ‘work-life integration’. This concept acknowledges that the ways people work and the attitudes of progressive companies have moved on. Family situations are more fluid, job roles are changing, working hours are stretching, and the division of parental responsibility is evolving.

What’s important is that employees understand what is expected of them, that they deliver what they are supposed to, and that they perform to the best of their ability. If this is set against a backdrop of understanding about family situations, a flexible attitude towards working hours and a culture of transparency and trust between managers and staff, then work and life can coexist more harmoniously.

The idea that the working week is becoming more fragmented is really driving this concept of integration. For example, an individual might choose to do some work at the very beginning of the day, then take their children to school, then work from a client’s office, then see their family at the end of the day, then finish up some work in the early evening. Similarly, another individual might work condensed hours over a fortnight, with their days varying from one week to the next. What’s required to help people meet their work-life integration needs is an understanding and a buy-in on both sides – from employee and employer.

Traditionally, when we discuss work-life integration and diversity we are talking about women in the workplace – retaining female employees after they have started a family and nurturing women at senior management and C-suite level. However, these policies are by no means exclusive to women. We recognise that some families have fathers as the primary child carer and that there are all manner of family structures and commitments which affect men and women in different ways.

We do, however, focus on offering extensive support and mentoring networks to help women in particular develop and reach their career goals, and ensure that there is gender diversity at senior and executive levels. An important part of a diversity and work-life integration policy is to embrace and value part-time working. At GE Capital we have found that doing so has allowed us to attract and retain really good people. We’ve made it a central part of our diversity thinking, to the extent that we were named in the Timewise Power Part Time Top 50 in 2012.

Given that expectations of employees have changed so much in terms availability and that social situations have evolved, it’s only right that employees should expect that their employer endorses work-life integration policies. The old concept, balance, implies two separate worlds, but in reality work and life are more intertwined than ever before and employees need the policies in place to help them thrive in the workplace.

Mary Fitzpatrick, Head of Diversity, GE Capital

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