Monday to Friday, 8 - 5 doesn't get the best out of employees with Tony Harrison

Urban Connection Director Tony Harrison joined us to look at how a good work-life balance for staff and managers contributes to improved business outcomes. 

Tony, what are the tell-tale signs that our work-life balance has got out of kilter? 

In this digital age, we have all become connected to our job 24 hours a day. We shouldn't be opening our laptop at 6 pm to check the latest emails. In general, that should be family time. If working into the evening is part of your daily routine, it may be time to make changes to your work-life balance. 

How do you begin to make change? 

The first step is understanding that YOU are in control of your work life, and you can say NO. It doesn't matter whether you are an employee or the owner of a business; the power sits with you as an individual. Unfortunately, it has become a badge of honour to work long hours, but there comes a time when you should put yourself first. It doesn't mean you can slack off and not perform. It just means being realistic, challenging some of the norms and trying to realign your priorities. 

What benefits come from staff managing their work-life balance? 

When you alter the way you work, it frees-up time to socialise with family, friends and work colleagues. You will feel less anxious at work, and that will allow your mind to become more creative. Also, the time you spend relaxing will be more rewarding. All-in-all a win-win for your business and your family. 

How does time management work at Urban Connection? 

As a business, we focus on outcomes. It's a little different from many consulting firms who put a great deal of emphasis on billable time. We give our staff a bit more freedom to make their own decisions about their workday. If a team member wants to go to a school event with their children or attend a medical appointment at any time during the day, that's fine. They are encouraged to put those events first and do the work when it suits them. It ensures that when staff are at work, they are in the right frame of mind and not distracted by other issues that are going on in their lives. Many businesses still operate between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm, but we think it's more important that our team members determine when they work within a maximum 40-hour week. Of course, there are peaks in our work programme when staff have to put in long hours, but generally, we ask staff to limit their working day to eight hours and devote the rest of the time to family and friends. 

Were you always an eight hour a day worker? 

I started my working life as a cadet for councils. You were expected to be ready for work at a particular time, and everyone worked long hours. Those were the days when I was less qualified than my peers, and I did every job that they gave me. When I moved into the corporate world, I spent a lot of time travelling. I was always on the first flight out and last flight back. The constant long days became extremely stressful, and I wasn't spending anywhere near enough time with my family. It became apparent that I couldn't continue working that way, and I would be better off if I took control of my work-life balance. 

What value is there for the business in allowing staff to be flexible with the hours they work? 

The incidence of sick days is very low at Urban Connection. The national average of sick days for white-collar workers is 4.1 days p.a while we are at 0.5p.a. We believe that allowing staff to control their work-life balance makes them feel better within themselves, the team as a whole appears to be happier, and the work we present to clients is of a higher quality. Our team places a high value on being able to control their working hours, and I believe the company derives enormous value when our employees arrive at work with a great attitude. 

How do you deal with staff who are under time pressure from clients? 

At Urban Connection, it's all about communication. We encourage our team to communicate early with clients when they feel the timeframe for the completion of a project is too tight. The client must be made aware of a problematic deadline early in the process so that elements of the project can be moved around, which will create a better outcome. If you are stressed about the timeframe of a job on Monday but wait until Friday to talk with the client about your concerns, all you have done is create more stress. To us, it's all about early intervention. Don't be frightened to talk to your client or manager about unrealistic project expectations. It's also essential that when you are developing a work programme with a client, your optimism bias doesn't take over. If there is any doubt about being able to complete a project within the suggested timeframe, it is always better to "come back tomorrow" once you have had time to consider the timing with a clear head. 

What happens when the boss pushes back and says "just knuckle down and do it"? 

It's where you can exert some control over your work-life balance. For the good of your health and the quality of your work, you do need to give it a go, but you must realise that the boss could say "sorry you can't push back". If you don't bring your concerns to the attention of a manager, you only have yourself to blame when you haven't got time for family and friends.