Work-life balance in the post pandemic age (as featured in We are the city)

Oct 18th, 2021

For National Work Life Week (11-15 October 2021), leadership consultant Oona Collins, founder of Potential Plus International, looks at the challenge of achieving that often elusive dream.


we are the city logo


The pandemic blurred the lines between work and home and has forced all of us to reevaluate our work-life priorities. The prolonged period of home-based working created a double-edged sword that both allowed us to have more time with family, friends and for non-work interests, it also created an environment where escaping from ‘the office’ became much harder. As we move into an era of hybrid working, this creates a challenge for business owners and leaders.

Work-life balance used to be one of those terms that seemed more like a pipe dream than a reality. Everyone said they wanted to have a better grip on spending less time in the office and more time at home, but really, when it came down to it, for most of us our homelife suffered at the hands of work demands.

Over the last 18 months, the pendulum has swung and habits and routines have changed.

A recent survey by online comparison website MoneySuperMarket found that customers ranked their work-life balance as being better now than it was before the pandemic.

The productivity dilemma

Business success often depends on the productivity of the workforce, but we have come to realise that productivity isn’t just borne out through time spent in the office. In many cases, working from home has proven to be just as productive as working from the office; in some cases more so. Productivity is driven by more than just time spent at a desk though.

Research carried out by the University of Warwick in June 2021 found that happiness makes people more productive at work. For the study, a group of economists undertook a range of experiments to put the idea that happy employees work harder to the test. They discovered that happiness made people around 12% more productive.

Whilst it would be easy to assume that happiness simply comes from working less, that isn’t necessarily always the case. When I have run away days or courses with groups of employees for clients, the recurring themes for what makes people happy are centred around feeling worthwhile and having their priorities met, both at work and at home. One thing that has rung true for all the teams I have worked with is that the employees who believe that their employers contribute to their ability to be happy, feel valued and have a sense of loyalty to their leaders. In return, they naturally push themselves to be more productive and have a desire to be more valuable and add to the success of the business.

Do we want to be at home more?

Undoubtedly everyone would like a perfectly matched work-life balance. One thing to have come out of the pandemic is that, on the whole, people want to be at home more.

As you would expect, the Office for National Statistics has looked closely at this issue over the last year and a half. Two sets of statistics that jumped out at me are that firstly, in the months up to June 2021, of those adults working from home during that time, 85% wanted to use a “hybrid” approach of both home and office working going forwards. Secondly is that when it comes to job adverts being placed in that period, the number that included references to homeworking was three times higher than previous years averages.

For business owners, the idea of allowing more home working time indefinitely can be hard to come to terms with. The question of priorities and the battle between career versus home often comes up in conversations as a reason for business leaders to feel hesitant about allowing too much flexibility. There is also the added complication of knowing how to set new policies and where the lines in the sand should be drawn. Whether dealing with a small team of people or a large group of teams, what individuals want from a work-life balance is going to vary from person to person.

For years, when working with business leaders I have placed huge emphasis on spending time looking at their personal priorities as the starting point for what they want to achieve in business. I will always ask the question “what makes you happy?”. The answer usually provides the key to understanding why they work, what they need from their business and what they need from the team around them. I regularly deal with CEOs who have come to realise they are not happy at work or at home; for them, it is then a case of working out what they need to do to establish a source of happiness.

If as a leader you are serious about helping your team find the right balance for themselves, then you need to be asking them the same question.

Just as each individual had differing priorities and a different idea of what their work-life balance feels like. We also need to realise that those goal posts may move for the individual themselves at different times depending on any number of external factors.

Work-life balance isn’t about having the right proportion of time switched off from work compared to at your desk or in the office, it is about feeling happy and fulfilled irrelevant of how much time you spend where doing what.

Leading by example

Traditionally it has always been the case that the higher up the organisation chart you are, the greater freedom you have for achieving a healthy work-life balance. Leaders however need to be showing their teams that they trust them to follow the same principles and work ethos that they themselves demonstrate. Trust breeds loyalty and commitment, which usually leads to more efficient working and greater business growth.

One of the biggest threats to employees achieving a healthy work-life balance is the example being set by their business leaders. A CEO client of mine was telling me that, having put in place a flexible working model that encourages staff to spend time working from home, she makes a point of ensuring that she is dialling into their weekly team meetings from home herself. Her reasoning was that not only does this encourage others to do the same, but it makes the meeting more inclusive because she isn’t able to give more attention to those around the board room.

Does it matter to a business?

Should business owners really be that bothered if their staff are happy with their work-life balance? The answer is of course yes.

When undertaking research for her book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What to Do About Itwork and organisation studies professor, Erin Kelly, undertook an experiment with over 1000 employees at a Fortune 500 company. She split the group in two with one working to the existing corporation’s rules and the other to revised rules designed to improve work-life balance and push flexibility. Unsurprisingly, those working to the new rules reported less burnout, lower stress levels and were found to be 40% less likely to quit their jobs over the next four years than their colleagues in the first group.

Achieving a greater work-life balance, or happiness and fulfilment, is no longer a pipe dream, it is something employees believe they can get. As the founders and owners of businesses and the people who set the rules, we have a duty to our staff, ourselves and our businesses growth to make sure it happens.