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Careers - The balancing act

There is evidence that even board-level executives can have the kind of work/life balance that gives them a proper life away from the office. However, that doesn't mean you should expect to be home in time for tea tonight.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or so the saying goes – and the next generation of senior executives have no intention of “doing a Jack”. Despite the pressures of work and the need to stay on top of the game, growing numbers of young, up-and-coming executives are looking to spread the load of their working week in order to experience a better quality of life outside the office.

UK executives have historically worked longer hours than their European counterparts. Research conducted by CIMA two years ago estimated that while 83% of French and 61% of German executives work less than 50 hours a week, in the UK, 47% of directors work between 51 and 60 hours a week.

Attitudes in this country, the survey suggested, have been heavily influenced by the long-hours culture of the US, while our European counterparts have tended to work more intensively, instead of spending extra hours in the office.

However, things are changing. Periods of economic uncertainty in the UK have fuelled a desire to adjust the work/life balance more in favour of life. There is also an acknowledgement on the part of older CEOs that they simply don’t have an option but to be more flexible if they want to retain the cream of executive talent.

“Many experienced executives are recognising that, while they themselves may be workaholics, they have to accept the need for balance in the lives of their younger colleagues,” says Suzzane Wood of City headhunters Odgers Ray & Berndtson. “The City isn’t interested in burning people out anymore.

While the work still has to be done, it doesn’t have to be done at the expense of a life outside. On top of this, the practice of ‘management by fear’ is seen as old hat. Management is now more about winning the hearts and minds of staff.”

Wood says she has also noticed that people are less keen to uproot their families and ship them off to another part of the country – or the world – than before, instead preferring to relocate themselves during the week and spend the weekend with their families. But, she warns, young, up-and-coming executives should not be fooled into believing that the UK business community has gone too “touchy-feely”. “It’s naive on the part of anyone to assume you’ll be earning £200,000 a year and still be home in time for tea,” she says.

Wood’s message is that the market is prepared to be reasonable – but companies would not expect anyone to put their private life first. Clearly, the best way forward is for both sides to adopt a flexible approach. No one will employ someone who has stated their aim is to work fewer hours – who wants to hire a wimp, after all? – but this is not what flexible working is about.

Changes are particularly apparent in the accounting profession. Research conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University and UMIST’s School of Management for the ICAEW in October last year stipulated that, although traditional workplace assumptions are deeply ingrained in accountancy firms, there is “evidence of an emerging counter-culture based on beliefs that having a life beyond work is important; that working shorter, more focused hours improves productivity; and that the current system rewards inefficiency”.

Company culture is a key element in this. “There are very few successful organisations which don’t offer some sort of flexible working environment,” says Kathryn Britten, a partner at BDO Stoy Hayward, who helped steer the research. “What is key to all this is that flexibility means different things for different people. What they want will depend on individual circumstances.”

Finance directors are in an ideal position in this debate, Britten believes.

“With the FD’s working year coming in peaks and troughs it is perhaps the role that most lends itself to flexibility and mutually beneficial working practices,” she says.

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