Features: December 19th, 2003

Taking Stock

By Charlotte Revely.

Reproduced by permission of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.

Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service Sir Andrew Turnbull wants “A Civil Service which young people and people successful in other walks of life want to join and work with.” It is now orthodox thinking that the Civil Service must represent the community it serves if it is to do its job properly, and that it must seek talent wherever it can be found. Work on encouraging diversity at all levels in the Civil Service acknowledges that many people face obstacles in pursuing a career through one or more of a variety of characteristics – race, sex, religion, sexuality, or disability, for example.

Another obstacle, however, can be institutional working arrangements that fail to take into account people’s commitments, needs and other interests. Earlier this year DTI Minister Patricia Hewitt told delegates at the National Council for One Parent Families Annual Conference that: “A lone mother in my constituency said she wanted to work because she didn’t want her kid growing up thinking it was OK not to work. But she couldn’t, because it just didn’t make sense, financially or practically. The equations were all topsy turvey for her.”

And it isn’t just lone mothers who want and need to design their lives so that work and other interests and commitments can co-exist. In 2002 a survey of over 4,000 jobseekers, conducted by the recruitment website reed.co.uk with the Department of Industry’s Work-Life Balance campaign, found that almost half of the respondents (46%) chose flexible working as the benefit they would most look for in their next job. Six out of ten workers view work-life balance as an important factor in assessing a potential new job. Interestingly, nearly a quarter (24%) of managers/directors said that work-life balance was an extremely important factor in deciding whether to apply for a new job. The message is clear, if we want talent we must offer work life balance. And, interestingly, we are.

Pragmatism suggests that catering for people’s work-life balance requirement in a competitive job market will help get them on board and keep them there. Taking a longer view, evidence suggests that workers happy with the juxtaposition of work and other aspects of their life contribute more. In 1998 Friedman Christensen and DeGroot wrote in the ‘Harvard Business Review’ on Work and Life Balance, that a small but growing number of managers .. operate under the assumption that work and personal life are not competing priorities but complementary ones. In essence they’ve adopted a win-win philosophy. And it appears they are right: in the cases we have studied, the new approach has yielded tangible pay-offs both for the organisations and for individual employees.

It seems that the process of people focusing on what is important, combined with bringing the ingenuity of all concerned to bear in making a new arrangement work, can add up to more that the sum of its parts. The Harvard Review is littered with examples of people achieving more through applying themselves flexibly than they did burning the midnight oil. Indeed, the report ‘Long Hours Working’, published by the Cabinet Office Change Management Group, concluded that “Staff who are unable to achieve a satisfactory balance between their work and home lives are less productive and more likely to take sick leave or even resign.”


According to the authors, the managers who strike a work-life balance with their people “cut-through the charade about priorities. They make business objectives crystal clear … simultaneously, they ask employees to identity the important goals, concerns and demands outside the office that require time and energy.”

Of course, for any of this to work, the employee has to be clear about what he or she wants. Sometimes the fact of change will be thrust upon them, and in such cases people can face distinct, albeit unwelcome, choices. For those not so obviously pressured by their environment, or at least their work environment, the impetus to think carefully about their lives and exactly what they want may be harder. Either way, as Friedmand et al points out, employees rarely felt comfortable discussing their personal priorities at work.

Getting away from the office is essential for people wishing to think about their direction, a fact recognized by DEFRA when they took the decision to outsource their IT function as part of their ‘Developing DEFRA – Modernising the Department’ Strategy. Around 700 staff are affected, all of whom face major changes. Some are expected to take up employment offers with the new employer, and others to remain at DEFRA to manage the relationship with the new supplier. Others still, if they want to, will be resettled in DEFRA or another Department, or may leave the Service.

Career management

Learning and Development manager Michellle King explains: “We feel that, as well as the personal development workshops we run internally, all staff would benefit from a career management session before making up their minds about what to do. I knew CMPS could do this for us, and it has been a very successful partnership. To date, over 150 staff have each had 90 minute on-to-one sessions with a trained counsellor, using self-assessment to think about their likes, dislikes, expectations, strengths and how to get to where they want to be. Participants develop an action plan for themselves, and the feedback has been very positive – people have come back feeling back in control.

“Two of our staff made their own arrangements to undertake life coaching at CMPS and had found it to be of value. We have since provided it on request to a small number of staff who felt they needed more help than career conselling alone could give them. The life coaching takes place over a period of 12 hours in a mix of both work and the individual’s own time.”

CMPS life coaches work one-to-one with people and help them explore their values, analyse areas of fulfillment and dissatisfaction, establish what they want to do, and work out how to get it. All coaches are highly-skilled, with programmes comprising a half-day session followed by a further six hours total contact. Summaries and action plans are agreed at the end of each session.

DEFRA e-Business Strategist Tom Cunliffe saw life coaching as a great opportunity to take stock and look at the wider opportunities before making a decisions about his future. He says: “I’ve got six years of career left, which is too much to think that retirement is just around the corner, and anyway, I’ve got energy and a need to contribute.

Over lunch, Tom’s coach explained how the programme would work, and Tom was surprised to find that its scope extended well beyond work, career and competencies. According to Tom, perhaps the most significant thing his coach did was to challenge his presuppositions. “Being 54 years old, and having been a civil servant for very many years I had a very limited set of expectation, and my coach opened me to change and challenged me to think properly about what I wanted. I found it quite challenging, and very rewarding, and as a result I’ve realized that I wish to remain in the Civil Service. I’ve enjoyed my career, and I realized that the Civil Service has been the right choice for me over the years.”

Advances in IT and an increasingly global culture are seeing government services move away from the ‘office hours’ model to one more in line with 24/7 private sector provision. We can expect to see fresh working patterns for significant numbers of civil servants – at call centers, for example, or working from remote locations or even home. The 9 – 5 working day no longer applies across the board, and other patterns are becoming increasingly relevant. Only clear thinking about what they want to do will determine how staff see change. Life coaching is just one way in which people can explore work choices in the wider context of their lives and, like Tom, see change as an opportunity rather than simply a threat.

Charlotte Revely is a training consultant with the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.