Firms say work-life balance boosts productivity

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Far from jeopardizing productivity, flexible working arrangements and other measures to improve work-life balance motivate staff and boost efficiency, corporate executives told a seminar in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

“We believe long working hours are a sign of loss of productivity and efficiency,” said Ambrose Linn, Hong Kong manager at Dutch mail company TNT, which enforces a maximum 48-hour week on its employees with no more than 12 hours’ overtime.

Flexible working arrangements are increasingly common at multinationals such as oil company BP, which offers the choice of working to three daily schedules: 8-4.30 pm, 8.30-5 pm and 9.30-6 pm to give staff time to collect children from school or attend evening class.

At U.S. computer maker Sun Microsystems Inc employees can work from home if their work is not linked to the office, a system that the company said enables it to attract talent throughout the world regardless of location.

Such companies say work-life imbalances increase business costs. In Hong Kong, a survey by local non-profit organization Community Business, found that employees work an average 51 hours a week -- 25 percent higher than the maximum working hours set by the International Labour organization.

A third of respondents said their productivity was being affected by long hours while 31 percent said long hours were causing health problems.

Companies that don’t provide a more attractive work environment will lose out, executives said.

“Senior management has to change its mindset especially with the new graduates coming out of university. They don’t want to work 60 hours a week and companies won’t attract the talent,” Shalini Thakur, associate director of diversity at investment bank UBS, told the seminar.”

Sabbaticals are promoted at U.S.-based public relations company Fleishman Hillard, which offers a six-week sabbatical to staff after they have worked between four and seven years.

Childcare help is also becoming more widespread.

Banking giant HSBC provides creche facilities, while investment bank Goldman Sachs offers financial assistance to an employee who is adopting a child, amounting in Hong Kong to HK$40,000 (US$5,128). It also gives five days immediate paid leave in the event of a family emergency.

Companies said fatigue and stress are major problems that need to be recognized.

Oil company Royal Dutch Shell provides counseling services for stressed staff. Text 100, a UK-based communications company has “duvet days” allowing employees to call in on two days a year and say they are not coming in to work because they are tired.

“People get tired. They don’t have to pretend to be sick,” said Jeremy Woolf, managing consultant at Text 100. However, while in Australia everyone takes those days without question, it was hard to enforce the plan in Hong Kong.

“In Hong Kong there’s a cultural challenge because people believe that if they’re working long hours they’re working hard,” he said. Executives said that was true of Asia generally.

In any country work-life balance policies had a better chance of success if senior management took the lead, they said.

BP says it has stopped making it mandatory for senior management to be supplied with smart phones and email devices because constantly checking and responding to messages goes against the company’s philosophy of promoting work-life balance.