• Merran Brown

May Day! May Day! What’s Happening to Work Life Balance?



Technically speaking, May Day celebrates the 8-hour work day—a landmark event in the history of Australian labour rights. It reminds us that productivity is not as simple as working longer hours, and that finding a healthy work-life balance has tangible importance on many levels.


But the true spirit of May Day goes beyond that. It celebrates an impetus to change the way we work, to evolve as professionals and organisations, so that people and companies reach higher levels of success.


Back in the middle of the 19th century, when workers and trade unions were lobbying for an 8 hour work day in Victoria, they focused on three main arguments. First, that harsh climates made the shorter work day all too necessary. Second, that workers needed time to educate and improve as individuals. Third, that workers would be better citizens, and raise healthier families, if granted more leisure hours.


These are obviously fantastic arguments, and they ultimately succeeded. That said, a fourth argument could have been used:


More leisure time is good for business. When people have enough down time, they actually become more productive. This may not have been so obvious two centuries ago, but the evidence is plentiful in our time—and it continues to pile up.

A Melbourne University study made a stunning find: Employees who were allowed to surf the net for leisure during work hours were more productive by an average of 9%. Leisure surfing was only allowed within reasonable limits, but even employees who spent a fifth of their time in a leisurely way performed more work-related tasks than those who did no leisure browsing. Not only that, they performed tasks better.


Other research highlights the very obvious growing use of mobile technology away from the job—a trend which allows Australians to “decentralise” their work loads, blurring the line between home and office. The study also suggests that relatively few people (4%) feel that the quality of leisure time suffers as a result of mobile connectivity.


All of this leads to the question of how organisations can be successful today and leading into the future. Companies which want to know the true recipe for success are looking not only toward technology, software, assembly lines or apps. They’re looking toward recruitment, retention, development, coaching, even outplacement.


In a word, people. Giving employees the conditions they need to feel productive, inspired, creative, loyal—these are more than afterthoughts. In fact, those who refuse to question their methods and policies simply because they’ve been effective in the past—those who turn a blind eye to future trends in the interplay between personal and professional life—will constantly find themselves a step behind those who are proactive. Technology will not eliminate the need for human labour. It will, however, continue to change the way we work. This necessitates a creative, open-minded approach.


Today we’re seeing companies encouraging team members to start and finish work early, to even finish by 2.00pm to free up family time, or even to work at home a day or so a week. These initiatives all reflect organisations truly accepting the value of their team members and a desire to retain them through introducing more balance into life.


In the decades that followed Australia’s wide scale adoption of the 8 hour work day, questions of fair wages and safety came to the fore. It wasn’t a question of winning one battle and calling it a day. In the same fashion, May Day does more than celebrate a single event in the history of labour. It’s about re-thinking how we work, questioning conventional attitudes, and evolving toward greater successes. The history behind this day prompts us to ask the question: What kinds of policies and behaviours will seem archaic in twenty or thirty years' time? What kinds of organisational wisdom will seem obvious to our children? Is it too soon to align with future trends now?


Every leadership team must find their own answers to these questions, but one thing is for certain: Talent will migrate toward companies whose answers are compelling.


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