Work-life balance is a top agenda item for human resource managers of most multinational and large organizations. It is even the top priority issue for employees everywhere. Whether to adopt work-life balance or flexible schedules remains a contentious issue especially with times of great business economic threats on one hand and increased family pressure on the other.
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Even though organizations globally manage a workforce that is very culturally diverse, they are faced with one similar challenge of managing a more informed workforce which demands for more and more rights even in difficult economic times.
Even the environment itself promotes such demands to arise and thus managers must remain competitively capable of handling this. For instance, a recent survey and report in the UK showed that longer drinking hours have significantly increased work absence (Churchard 2011).
There is a continuous search for ways that will not force people to choose between work and family or friends. In multinationals, the task is not as easy as it may be on local companies. The international human resource managers are faced by an extra task of understanding the various demographic and cultural differences in the countries in which their organizations are to be found.
This means that the HR policies may not be directly transferable among the countries. A policy that may be applicable in one culture without any resistance from staff may face rejection if applied in a different culture if customization is not done.
In this paper, focus is given to personnel policies that relate to flexibility and work-life balance. The human resource practices in some local and multinational companies are addressed and it is sought if a set of policies related to work-life balance in a multinational corporation can be applicable to a subsidiary in a different country.
“Trends of Working Time in Europe”
In Europe, clear efforts to improve on working hours began in the 1980s, even though there had been efforts here and there to achieve the same. In Germany, working time flexibility increased since the compromise in the metal working industry in 1984. Today, over 52% of all the dependent employees work within a flexible organization. (Carl & Maier 2009)
In an experts meeting held in Dublin on 3rd June 2011, Boulin (2011) suggested that institutions in the European Union adopt policies that favor work/life balance through parental leaves and childcare facilities and also gender mainstreaming. A suggestion was therefore made that revision of working time be done in regards to long working hours, working time options and rules concerning unsocial hours.
On the same meeting, Italian human resource expert Addabbo Tindara suggested that the quality of work dimensions be looked at from six sides namely the “social, economic, work-life balance, complexity, organizational and ergonomic dimensions.”
According to the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI), flexible working hours can be a major hindrance to work-life balance. Data shows that for people working less than 40 hours a week, there is no much work-family conflict.
However, for employees doing over 40 hours there is greater work-family conflict. According to the study by the institute, predictability is better than flexibility as far as work-family balance is concerned. The idea of working hours being flexible is not enough, they should be predictable too.
Flexible contracts can come in form of temporary working, fixed term contracts, sub contracting, and zero hour’s contracts. Other ways of creating flexible work hours are part-time work, flexitime and overtime. People can also do job sharing and compressed hours. Different countries have adopted different forms of flexible work in line with cultural beliefs, religion and moral principles.
There is an increasing rate for the demand for work-life balance solutions by employees and managers (Bird 2006). According to Bird, work-life is a serious concern even to the senior executives for the following reasons. Work-life balance affects growth and profit of the company i.e. on and off-the-job stresses adversely affect bottom line growth and drive down productivity.
There is full engagement in customer service- this creates an unnecessarily stressed and out of balance workforce. There is increased expectation by the current pool of younger workers that there is a life to live other than and out of the job. Health cost solution- there is a rising cost of health care by organizations owing to the increased work related illnesses.
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The health perspective
According to Mayo-Clinic, inability to have a good work-life balance has far reaching health effects especially to the worker. Fatigue, suppressed immunity and general unproductivity are just among the many problems the worker experiences. Mayo-Clinic proposes a strategy to strike a better balance. They propose an approach that starts with tracking one’s weekly schedule and cutting or delegating those tasks you cannot handle.
They also advise people to learn to say no when extra work out of schedule is assigned to make room for joy and additional meaningful activities. Work should be left at the workplace. Advice is therefore given, especially with the current technology that could connect home to work, that people should learn to separate work from personal activities. Good time management is especially crucial.
This goes a long way in giving the worker enough time to relax and attend to other personal matters. In addition, it goes a long way in preventing conflicts at home more so for the married workforce.
Above all, a good and healthy nutrition coupled with daily physical activity routines to nurture the physical and emotional wellbeing are recommended. It goes without saying that taking time to engage in regular physical activity in a preventive measure to cardiovascular diseases among other illnesses that are accentuated by living physically inactive life.
This is a trend that is very common among the working class. As such, taking time to do activities that one enjoys could be a good thing to do (Stiles 2009). It is one’s responsibility to evaluate oneself and seek professional help when it is the right time.
Working long hours and working in unsocial hours of the night necessitate frequent medical check ups and other forms of medical attention. Multinationals which have subsidiaries in areas where there is no elaborate legislation on flexible and work-life balance must take this into account. Their human resources management must also create provisions that will ensure they are well trained for health work related life.
This will increase employee retention, reduce days that employees miss job due to work-related sicknesses and in the end company maintains profitability. Taking the health of the workforce with high regard also motivates the employees, which is a gain to the organization.
Mayo-Clinic suggests that one can take advantage of available options like flex hours, job sharing, compressed week and telecommuting among others. Control over one’s hours will give less stress. Flexible working arrangements have widely been advocated for by governments and private institutions. The Australian Government (2011) attaches the following benefits to flexible working arrangements.
To begin with, the Australian government has realized that flex-time improves the firm’s ability to attract skilled and motivated employees, not to mention the effect of enhancing employee retention.
Staffs who are allowed to take flex-time working schedules eventually become loyal to the organization since they feel the organization appreciates them by giving them space to make their choices. The staffs therefore execute their duties as if they are shareholders of the organization.
The government of Australia has also recognized that allowing for flexi-time schedules is a great step towards increasing trust and respect between employees and the management. When employees get flex-time opportunities, they end up contributing positively to the organization by improving productivity.
This is because flexible work schedules can enable staff to execute their office duties even in odd hours which otherwise they would not have been working. It is well identified that flexi-time schedules lead to a reduction in staff absenteeism and labour turnover, eventually raising the company’s productivity and profitability.
The Australian Government (2011) also highlights that flexible work schedules go a long way in reducing stress levels and boosting morale and commitment in employees. Finally, flexible work schedules reduce discrimination at work place.
After recognizing the above benefits of flexible work schedules, the Australian Government (2011) went ahead to propose a three step approach to ease the introduction of flexible work practices. In the first step, new arrangements appropriate to the individual are decided in consideration of available options. The second step is to plan the strategy, especially on how to make the negotiations.
The final one is to engage the actual negotiations with the employer, giving good reasons and explanations on benefits to you and the organization too. To the employer, the government says that this move will increase recruitment of the number of persons with disabilities. These people have an advantage of lower absenteeism, lower cost of hiring them, building staff morale and fewer accidents at work.
In a case study of KPMG UK, a study was done to help in improvement of the performance of its large workforce in the country. The main challenges to be overcome were to cater for the greater expectations of freedom from staff. The real challenge was therefore to create a flexible working strategy that could both meet the staff needs and still improve its competitiveness.
Line managers were therefore set to work along HR to evaluate the requests. The results were glide time, part-time working hours, job sharing, additional holiday purchase, unpaid leave, career break and home working. Time off to deal with child care is also allowed (Giglio n.d).
These are indications that KPMG adopted an approach that favored flex time as opposed to balanced work-life. In the long run, it achieved business benefits through creating a more loyal, motivated and productive staff, reduced recruitment cost due to better staff retention, a diverse workforce was maintained, and reinforced the company’s core values.
Despite the fact that KPMG is a multinational that has subsidiaries in almost every part of the world, the human resource practices that relate to work-life and flexible working do not apply in all subsidiaries. Those in areas where employees are not much into flexible work hours do full time with core working hours being ten to four o’clock but reporting to work at eight in the morning and leaving at six o’clock in the evening (Giglio n.d).
The Ad Council, a private non profit organization with head offices in New York and Washington D.C has an average of 100 employees. All the employees are given liberty to utilize flexible hours provided they show that their productivity will not decline nor will the company incur further financial obligations. This program began with one employee who requested to be allowed to work from home.
The employees hence gain in working in a happy environment spending more time with their children. Employees end up staying while the company remains attractive to job seekers. The company does not have to give several leaves like long maternity or paternity leaves since the parents can work soonest at the comfort of their homes (Vaele 2011).
A furniture company, Ward’s Furniture based in Long Beach, California began to look for flexibility options as a means of taming employee turnover and thereby retain its valuable employees.
The employees are treated like a family while the company still manages to keep its stores staffed. It was able to realize between 5 and 10 percent increase in annual sales in a business unfriendly time while most of its competitors shut their doors with lack of business.
Management of global workforce in relation to flexi-time and work-life balance
It is difficult for organizations that have a global presence to manage a flexible and very satisfied workforce. On the international arena, the managers are faced with a challenge of making flexible schedules for the employees.
Most have therefore adopted a flexible schedule of work at home, which requires commitment both from employers and employees. In a study to search the applicability of this technique globally, it was found that there were more challenges in countries with collectivist cultures. Business Process Organizations and IT firms have gone a mile ahead in establishing such schedules.
In most countries that have effected flexible work hours, the call to have them comes as a result of different employee or employer needs. For instance, employees may call for flexible hours to allow them attend to other personal issues and then compensate with later hours.
The call may also come from the employer in a bid to tame employee turnover, to share work due to inadequate supply of labour or to give chances to more employees or people with disabilities. The policies thus adopted will have a different basis in the effort to meet these demands. Cross border transfer of the policies may therefore not be possible as it will be difficult to meet these demands with just one set of homogeneous provisions.
Perceptions on position, culture and career
This would be one of the greatest variables in determining if transfer of personnel policies across borders will be effective. Surprisingly, this also has to do with the management’s taste as it may determine if these kinds of flexible schedules will be introduced.
A study done on women around the globe showed that 81% of the North American women would make career sacrifices to improve personal life. This compares to 70% Asian women and 55% European (Rudrappa 2005).
Even when academic credentials and other experiences are very important aspects in the selection of the right candidates for a job, an arising criterion is getting the right people in the right place with focus on cultural fit. International companies like Ikea have their selection of candidates more leaning towards cultural fit. Oracle is one other company that will use this criterion even for managerial positions.
Other multinational companies like the Japanese Sony and All Nippon Airways do not let academic documents get in the way of getting the right staff. Internationalization calls for special attention such that the strategies applied are consistent while at the same time being flexible. In the end, the organization is able to meet international standards while at the same time being sensitive to local needs.
In conclusion flexibility of people both in mindset, working hours and other key aspects is deeply etched into cultures. It is one of the reasons international human resource managers will look at cultural affiliation when considering who to consider for a position.
Career women and flexibility
In proportion to the relative number of employed women against employed men, women seem to be the largest group that is affected by lack of flexibility of work. In fact, a study was done to determine this and it was found that 67% of women interviewed would voluntarily leave work to stay at home as a wife or mother.
An overwhelming 79% would quit for family obligations while 38% would do if they were forced to stay at home to be mothers or family custodians. However, challenges are still imposed by technology by bringing a work environment at home. It adversely affects women since they are now expected to balance the life of childcare, professional work and family.
ILO asserts that flexible working could lead to gender balance if well managed. They warn that it could lead to the woman being more oppressed if much work is brought to the home environment while there are lots of other domestic issues to handle (International Labour Organization 2007). As such, career women would end up not being favored by the flexibility of working as expected.
In an effort to achieve maximum productivity of an international human workforce, the focus should not dwell on the culture of the group from which the international organizations draw their workforce from. With the world becoming a global village, most of these hard-line cultures are being abandoned to embrace modern living. There is also a stronger need-based force, stronger than cultural tendencies that defy culture.
For instance, most multinational companies looking for labour force would go where it is cheaper, that is in countries like China, India and generally Africa.
The three are deeply rooted in the connectivism culture and are likely to oppose ideas like night shifts, working on holy days and other special times. However, this is only ideal. Members of these cultural groups have swam against the tide and made an impressively flexible workforce.
With several advances having been made globally in management, it is only evident that either flexible time or good work-life balance is not entirely what is needed to increase sales or acquire a competitive edge; there are a myriad of many other ways.
It would be wrong, therefore, to conclude that because a company used one of these at a certain time and performed well, it is the cause of increased productivity. It is often a complex interaction of these factors. Of major importance is the psychological consideration of individuals as separate entities and identifying each person’s needs.
Transfer of personnel policies across borders
The transfer of personnel policies on flexible and work-life balance is limited by the reasons each country established its statutes as compared to the other than it is by cultural differences.
There is also lots of revision of the statutes as the workers and work demands keep changing and therefore necessitating their constant change. The absence of a very elaborate policy direction from the International Labour Organization is a limitation in itself to a smooth transfer of personnel policies regarding this area among nations.
During its presidency of the European Union, Sweden promoted its working life. It is a clear indication that there is no homogeneous body of social science knowledge about work-life balance which can allow policy formulation and legislation.
The incongruence in the laws formulated and lack of information in certain cases in different countries therefore pose a hindrance to easy transfers of personnel across borders. What may be considered as a bundle of family friendly practices in one country may be the opposite in the other (Tulgan 1996).
Comparative issues have not been adequately dealt with to identify the key issues of work-life balance. There are therefore many cross-national differences in assumptions about the norms of family life and employer’s responsibilities. Divorce rates are a good indicator of this (Guest 2001).
A good example is in what was back in the years, the Soviet Union. It used to have a strong stress on welfare and family support in its factory system but with the collapse of the communist system, a breakdown of these institutions was experienced.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has certain provisions that regard healthy working time and family friendly working time. It thus works towards seeking a solution of the traditional “male bread winner- female home maker” situation. Much of what it proposes falls within the flexible schedule brackets as part of it is part-time jobs and hourly wages for full time jobs (International Labour Organization 2007).
Europe however is a step ahead in promoting some homogeny even though there still arises some disparities in legislation among the member countries. It is for that reason easier to have transfer of these policies within Europe.
The ICT industry has been successful in maneuvering around most legislative and cultural barriers that may come in the way of flexible and work-life balance. The main reason is that much of ICT-related work can be done form whichever point in location. Technology has eased the barriers even though it has not cleared them. Most jobs that can be done online and perhaps have no tight deadlines encourage flexibility.
Other than working as a ‘Flexibility Coach’, the human resource manager of a multinational must orientate himself to understanding of diverse cultures and their attitudes towards all aspects of work. As employees of today focus on improving on their work-life balance, the option of across border transfers is at stake.
Employees want to be either near home or at home, whether working or attending to personal matters. In this perspective, IHRM must focus on the real impact of flexible work-life balance.
In most developing, nations especially of Africa and Asia, the concept of flexibility may be relatively new and if it has been adopted, it is only by a few companies related to ICT, though still to a lesser magnitude.
For instance, choice may be on when to work but not necessarily on where to do it. For multinationals that have expanded to these areas, the use of a common HR policy on all aspects may not be possible, unless the members of the subsidiary group are flexible in their mindset to accommodate it.
The culture of the host nation and donor nation may differ and this will have its share of the reasons transfer of personnel policies will not be efficient. In a case study to compare such cultures, Taiwan and UK were taken into consideration. First, UK is a developed economy while Taiwan is an upcoming economy. Taiwanese principles are based on Confucianism while UK principles are based on individualism.
Duty to family, harmonious attitude and a consensus towards a conflict-free working are some of the guiding principles for Taiwan. For UK, the individualism approach has no such thing as society to regard. The Taiwanese system provides permanent work because of values of Confucianism like “long term orientation”.
On the other hand, at least 64% of UK’s workforce is either home-based workers or part-time workers. On such basis, transferability of the policies is therefore difficult for the two countries (Chang, Wilkinson & Mellahi 2007).
Challenges facing international work time management
One of the greatest challenges a general manager of an international organization would face is managing people of different cultures in relation to productivity for his organization. The manager is left with an option of considering labour cost factors and economic factors as the major determinants.
Even the expansion would need to consider these cultural factors. The prevailing religion could be considered as cultural. Religion affects people’s stands and these would best be factored in consideration of setting up an international business. Selecting managers for various assignments would mean screening them for such cultural factors for the sake of adaptability, self orientation and relational skills.
Agreements on work life and flexible work
Most researchers seem to agree that flex time and work balance must go hand in hand if it is possible for a specific job. Mayo-Clinic seems especially to propose a harmonized balance of the two. There is especially one general agreement in all schools of thought that the number of hours each person works per week could be rescheduled to become more productive and beneficial to the employee.
Scholars of different schools of thought seem to agree that flexible work schedules can be either beneficial or detrimental to the organization. Detriment seems to come from less commitment of work-at-home employees.
Conflicts on work life and flexible work
The greatest conflict arises when the two aspects of work improvement are not differentiated and are addressed as one and the same thing. The Work Foundation (2008) addresses work-life balance as “having a measure of control over when, where and how you work leading to ability to enjoy an optimal quality of life” (para 5). In this definition, more of the issues addressed would rather fall on flexible work than work-life balance.
It does not address the internal adjustment of the individual in terms of preparedness, personal schedule and attitudes towards work in an effort to make sure that work does not stall personal affairs or the other way.
Some scholars depict work-life balance and the right to ask for a flexible working as impossible to overcome owing to the differences in cultures. They suggest that it could only be handled like subsidiaries requiring totally independent practices and policies.
Other scholars imply that with the globalization of management, everything else concerning the working environment could be ‘globalized’ and enable transfer of personnel policies internationally.
There is diversity amongst European countries concerning the basis on which statutes on flexible working were introduced. UK, for instance, introduced them in response to labour market shortages and to eliminate work-family conflict that became a barrier to employment.
Other countries introduced theirs in response to unemployment and therefore it was a means of work sharing. The compatibility of personnel policies of such countries is therefore capped by these facts and is difficult to effect.
The internationalization of HRM is limited by social cultural factors. Some of these factors are issues like common age, size, and norms of behavior, presence of customs, influence of labour unions, labour market and perceptions of different stakeholders. When looked at from a flexibility dimension, many other factors like pay and benefits, communication, transfers and business environment come into play.
It is becoming increasingly important for multinational enterprises to globalize their human resource practices. How best to do it on a culturally diverse workforce depends on the continued innovativeness and creativity of the managers. Gaps between strategic management and international human resource management function must be bridged.
Despite its difficulty, it has proved possible with several multinational companies effectively effecting flexible schedules to all their subsidiaries. German companies are known, for instance, to expand to Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia and still successfully implement their personnel policies in all of them.
International human resource management is faced with such emerging issues and must be competitive enough to cater for it to overcome such challenges and retain a competitive edge. The disparities in how such policies evolve must be catered for because the rate of changes may not be the same. It will even mean constant revision of the policies in a fast changing world.
Countries that are technologically advanced are easier to manage because infrastructure supports such changes. The human resource management team will however experience a higher demand from employees of such countries.
Competent international human resource managers will, according to this research, be open-minded so as to accommodate different cultures in the work-life balance requests. In the long run, the human resource manager seeks to help the employees achieve personal satisfaction as they achieve organizational goals.
He may not be able to put into effect these flexible schedules for managers since their roles are more demanding and options like sharing will be out of question even with much delegation. Differences in cultural factors are partially a hindrance to the transferability of personnel policies, but not a block never to be overcome.
List of References
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