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Switching off: why flexibility improves engagement

 

According to Justine Webse, a more flexible approach to work-life balance could pay big dividends through a more engaged workforce.

 

Despite receiving lower pay[1], fewer promotions[2&3], and doing twice the amount of unpaid work that men do[4], women appear to be more engaged at their paid workplace.

A Gallup poll in 2013 in the U.S., revealed that 33 percent of women" feel actively engaged" in their workplace, versus 28 percent of men[5]. This difference is small, but when you consider the relative lack of recognition and reward that women receive in the workplace (the pay gap is now wider than it was 20 years ago), surely the reverse trend is more plausible?

Several sources have worked out why this counterintuitive trend may be occurring, and the results have clear repercussions for business communicators.

In short, it appears that flexible working practices are linked to higher employee engagement for both genders. Yet, for reasons we are all aware of, women are more likely to experience flexible work. This report (from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency), explains the link between flexibility and engagement for men, and the Diversity Council Australia supports these findings with their 'Get Flexible' campaign.

It seems that flexible work is linked not only to better work-life balance, but to lower stress, and more productive and satisfying engagement at work. What's more, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell explains in this HBR article why flexibility has such a dramatic positive effect on our brains.

Hallowell and others make the case the 'always on', 'always busy' nature of our workplaces is reducing our ability to be productive and fully engaged. Even if we want to be productive, constant distractions without clear priorities and not enough down-time impairs even the smartest employee's ability to achieve their best.

Time away from work to focus on other important activities actually improves our productivity and engagement. Yet, many organisations tend to believe (or behave as if) the exact opposite is true.

The continued cultural barriers to working from home, gaining job-sharing arrangements or part-time work at leadership levels are all proof that we fail to fully recognise the link between flexibility, engagement and productivity.

But what does this have to do with communications? Everything, if you look at this way: If Dr Hallowell et al are correct, communicators and the work they do can compound 'distraction' and information overload.

As communications professionals fight for employees' attention through more channels and an increasing flow of information, we too are impacting employees' engagement in their actual work. Unless we manage it well, we too are impacting employees' ability to switch off, log out and be reflective.

If we really want to be part of improving engagement, we have to help employees prioritise better instead of allowing everything to be urgent. We must give them the tools and knowledge to communicate effectively, and to find the information they need quickly and easily.

If we accept the link between work-life balance and productivity, there are at least four things communicators could consider doing in their practice to support employee engagement:

1.      Stop the email overload: emails take a significant toll on people's time and productivity. Checking and responding to emails all day is not only a barrier to engagement, it's a barrier to achieving real outcomes. Communicators must consider their role in reducing, rather than compounding, the email deluge.

2.      Advocate for genuine time-out: Some organisations[6] are already experimenting with forced email blackouts, and not allowing employees to remain in mobile contact while on holiday or outside office hours. Even if this seems impossible, setting some boundaries and clearer cultural norms regarding employee availability should be on our 'to do' lists. HR would undoubtedly welcome our help here.

3.      Facilitate fewer, more productive meetings: Meetings are a core element of getting work done, but it doesn't hurt to encourage employees to consider the 'opportunity-cost' for the meetings they call. By encouraging people to assign a dollar value to a meeting, it may inspire them to do the following:

  • invite fewer people (i.e. only those that are essential)
  • practice better meeting etiquette, including setting agendas and following up with actions and status reports
  • leave mobile devices off the meeting table and give attendees one's full attention.

4.      Focus on the frontline of communications: As this recent BRW article clearly articulates, good communication at the line manager level still trumps glossy magazines and CEO messages when it comes to engagement at work. It pays to spend more time improving the dialogue between employees and their direct line managers than almost anything else we can do.

 

[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-03/pay-gap-between-men-and-women-wider-now-than-20-years-ago/4931996

[2] http://www.afr.com/p/national/education/infographic_how_australians_study_OAcwrGAguU4gJ11OFqzufK

[3] http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Dec+2012

[4] http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4125.0main+features4110Aug%202013

[5] http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/06/women-are-more-likely-than-men-to-be-engaged-in-their-jobs/277107/

[6] http://www.cnbc.com/id/48614695

 

Justine Webse is a writer, and a marketing and content strategist. She has more than 10 years’ experience as an internal communications consultant and has worked with organisations large and small all over the world. To find more about her and read her blog, visit www.justinewebse.com.

 

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