Employees urged to strike the right life/work balance

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'We've looked at how people can be given the opportunity to step to the sideline and pursue a personal interest without feeling that their career will be derailed. We're taking steps to make life more pleasant with casual dress, sabbatical leave and employee discounts on casual clothing,' he adds.

CSFB is by no means unique in its attempts to improve the lives of its employees. The past year has seen an eruption of interest in the work/life balance. The UK Government launched an 'Employers for Work/Life Balance' initiative in March.

Tight labour markets, a depleting supply of new entrants, attempts to attract more diverse applicants, and the promised pleasures of working for a dot-com company have made firms sit up and take a long look at their cultures.

Navel-gazing is particularly apposite in financial services, where work has long taken precedence over everything else.

The London-based Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) suggests that those working an average of 60 hours per week are likely to be 'workaholics'.

According to the institute, 29% of all financial services employees fall into this category. In areas such as front office, M&A and corporate finance, the proportion of workaholics is likely to be a lot higher.

Long hours go with the territory. The simple fact is that neither clients nor markets respect the nine-to-five working day. Global markets demand attention 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 'Organisations want you for conference calls with Tokyo in the morning and for conference calls with New York in the evening,' says a former managing director who has quit the industry for something a little less time-consuming.

The problem is summed up by Patricia Hodgson of the London Business School: 'Someone is doing deals and you're not there.'

The Europeans accuse the US banks of perpetrating the long-hours culture. 'People here get to know their children as they grow up. At bulge-bracket US banks, they see them at Christmas and Easter,' claims the head of HR in a European organisation.

High levels of remuneration have traditionally compensated incursions into employees' personal lives.

In the past year, however, this financial palliative has been found wanting. It was the rush among bankers to join dot-coms that made banks take notice. As well as offering hefty remuneration, start-ups seemed to offer something a little less tangible - a nicer lifestyle.

CSFB's Luciano says: 'Dot-coms were a catalyst. They cut a way through the forest and made businesses look at how they could appeal to people in the year 2000 as opposed to the year 1800. Their lasting legacy has been a shift in the paradigm of relations between organisations and employees.'

The symptoms of this shifting paradigm are various.

Some, such as flatter hierarchies and employee empowerment, predated dot-coms. But the months following the dot-com phenomenon have been characterised by more specific moves. Dress-down is now commonplace. Firms such as Salomon Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter are offering a personal valet to tackle time-consuming chores.

This is just a start. Flexible working and telecommuting are likely to become more important in future.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) forecasts that 60% of people in the UK will be employed on a part-time or portfolio basis by 2005. Financial services firms are likely to find it hard to remain aloof from the changing times.

CSFB's Luciano says: 'Organisations that don't address work/life issues will be seen as less interesting to prospective employees.'

Younger staff, in particular, want something different. Today's 20-somethings are 'technologically literate and environmentally aware, with a global conscience', says Kevin Delaney of PwC's human capital team.

At the US think-tank, the Institute of Alternative Futures, futurist Aeul Dighe says that the separation between work and life is set to break down.

'People's lives are becoming more integrated. Instead of having discrete categories, people want to mix family and work and volunteering. Telecommuting and project-related work are helping to enable this. If someone is a skilled worker in the new economy they will have a lot of choices, and unless employers are at least interested in the middle ground they will find it very difficult to attract and retain staff.'

In fact, banks are already circling and occasionally occupying the middle ground. In the US, Merrill Lynch is promoting flexibility through job-sharing, part-time work and compressed workweeks. Goldman Sachs is sending UK staff on time-management courses.

Fund management firms are not far behind. Karen Hoggard, head of HR at Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, says: 'We're currently considering a number of ways our staff can work, such as telecommuting, job sharing and part-time work. This is in recognition of the importance we place on enabling people to balance their lives.' Much of this will be purely rhetoric, however, unless it is applied to those who work the hardest - front-office people. Since they deal directly with clients, the front office is the most likely to have to service their late-night needs, and many argue that this cannot be avoided.

CSFB's Luciano says: 'The front office is the last frontier for work/life policies. The challenge is how to achieve such a balance in such a demanding role and environment.'

In fact, it should be possible both to improve the quality of work and the quality of life. Work and life are not a zero-sum game, and astute employers are realising this. A recent article in the Harvard Management Review* argues that the mantra that real commitment means total availability is wrong. Managers and employees can collaborate to achieve work and personal objectives to everyone's benefit.

However, it remains to be seen whether recent changes will prove enduring in a downturn.

If a lack of skilled staff becomes an oversupply of staff, banks may drop the rhetoric and employees may simply be glad of a job.

But Luciano disagrees: 'The change will be enduring. When organisations step off the plank and start a real, coherent discussion on work/life balance there's no return. A new generation of employees will expect work/life balance policies in the same way that they expect a desk and a chair in the office.'

In the meantime, there is solace for the die-hards who work 60-plus hours each week. It may be good for you.

After examining 'workaholics', the IPD concluded that they derived greater enjoyment from their work and were more satisfied with their health than their more restful counterparts.