13/01/2013 11:21 GMT | Updated 13/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Managing the Work-Life Merge

It had to happen: a new piece of jargon has been invented to describe the rise of a new workplace reality - at least among organisations built mainly around people skills, or talent. At the start of 2013, the terms 'work-life balance', 'flexible working' and 'home working' don't quite cut it any more. What we are witnessing today is the rise of the 'work-life merge' (a term coined recently by Facebook executive Emily White).

In this merged work-life world, work and private time are interleaved to suit individual needs. The classic example is of a working parent who wants to be able to fit their work around family time in the early evening - putting in a couple of extra hours at home after the kids have gone to sleep. But there are many other examples of people who value being able to fit work around other aspects of their lives.

There are benefits to both employees and employers from this new way of working - Vodafone itself has benefited greatly - but it does require careful handling. Along with new attitudes to where and when work can take place, it also requires new and adapted policies and processes. Above all, the right technology is needed to enable effective merged working, including tools to ensure employees can work from anywhere, anytime, collaboration tools and secure access to systems and emails.

It's vital that employers get the balance right here. Employees value the ability to work flexibly, but they clearly don't wish to feel exploited during time they consider their own.

Mobile technology is the great enabler, but it needs to be the 'servant' not the 'master'. Once the right technology is in place, people need to have the training, skills and tools they need to manage their availability properly: an 'always-on' culture is not healthy for anyone.

There needs to be trust on both sides. Employees need to know that they will not face unreasonable demands on their time outside traditional working hours. Employers need to be comfortable that their employees will get their work done successfully outside the 'controlled' environment of the traditional office with traditional office hours.

Vodafone's own research found that flexible working practices have a bigger impact on job satisfaction than financial benefits such as a stake in the business, bonus schemes and pensions. Among employees who are able to work remotely with full access to systems and colleagues, more than three-quarters say it boosts their job satisfaction, and a similar proportion say that it improves their work-life balance. (The research was done before people had heard of the term 'work-life merge'!)

Employers were also found to understand the positive impact of new ways of working on performance. Flexible working practices are felt to create a more productive organisation (nearly 6 out of 10 managers cite this as a top five benefit), enable a more flexible workforce (50 per cent) and save costs by reducing office space requirements (54 per cent). When asked to rank the perceived benefits of flexible working to employees, managers put improved employee satisfaction and retention at the top of the list.

Of course, the work-life merge isn't for everyone, and nor should anyone be expected to work in this way. It needs to be as acceptable and valid for someone to wish to work in an office during normal office hours as in any other way, if that suits them and the job they do. The point is that the technology and tools are now available to let people work at the times and places that suit them best. And ultimately, that will only be good for all concerned.