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WORK LIFE-GET THE BALANCE RIGHT

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A successful work/life strategy should balance the business case with the individual benefits for staff, says James...
A successful work/life strategy should balance the business case with the individual benefits for staff, says James Odling-Smee

This week's national work/life balance week will highlight the work of Hertfordshire CC and its LifeWISE scheme.

Creating a successful work/life balance throughout an organisation needs an equilibrium between the business case and the benefits for staff. Despite the importance of stressing initiatives' business benefits, Hertfordshire's experience shows this should not overshadow 'softer' staff needs.

Hertfordshire has been looking at work/life balance for some time - its WorkWISE initiative was launched three years ago. The project aimed to take advantage of new technologies by creating mobile and homeworking teams. This meant staff could work flexible patterns, and achieve a better work/life balance. The business objectives were to achieve a 25% reduction in office space.

Office accommodation was reviewed, staff were given the freedom to work from home or on a mobile basis and given an IT kit to take with them from place to place. Payments were agreed to cover any extra costs at home, for example heating and lighting. Office 'oases' were established across the county as drop-in centres for staff who needed a temporary place to work. Staff-to-desk ratios were cut and a cost assessment process took place before any initiative started to ensure the changes made financial sense.

It has not all been a bed of roses and we have learned it is vital to get the balance right between business objectives and changes to how people work. Some took the loss of their personal office space and furniture worse than others.

Having listened to staff concerns, the council successfully applied for funding from the Department for Education and Skills in its first round of work/life balance challenge fund bids.

The funding was used to run focus groups and questionnaires checking whether Hertfordshire met the needs of its staff. A rethink about the work/life balance issue was undertaken and a new LifeWISE strategy developed. This changes the emphasis of the council's approach. The business case and benefits are still clearly defined in order to achieve top-level commitment. At an operational level the emphasis is now firmly on communicating with staff, and where possible meeting their individual needs. The organisation and service needs, of course, stay at the forefront.

The strategy takes a more holistic approach to work/life balance. The four key strands are:

- WorkWISE, which sets out a wide range of flexible working options

- HealthWISE, which introduces a range of healthy lifestyle initiatives

- CareWISE, which provides advice and assistance to the 32% of staff who have caring responsibilities

- Options, which is shortly due to go online with a flexible range of optional staff benefits to suit different life stages.

Initial indicators about the initiative are very positive. Staff are showing a lot of interest in the LifeWISE initiative, and the number of remote PC users is now up to 600 - a 100% increase over the past year. Young in Herts, the early years development and childcare partnership provides online child care information.

Hertfordshire has learnt a great deal from its experiences:

- A strong business case for introducing work/life balance initiatives is important for achieving the strategic 'buy in' at the top of the organisation

- It is important to pay an equal amount of attention to the personal and individual needs of staff when developing strategies

- It is important to find out from staff what they would most value in a WLB strategy

- Staff often highly value the things that are easiest to implement. For example, many people said they simply wanted access to reliable, detailed information on options for childcare at the council

- The importance of retaining a clear focus on why the council exists in the first place - to deliver services to the community.

JAMES ODLING-SMEE

Head of corporate communications,

Hertfordshire CC

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