The sudden upsurge of interest in the issue of how to achieve a "work/life balance", to find just that right mix between quality time for yourself and your job, has been described as a "revolution" in the workplace. A flurry of surveys has told the story: a MORI poll for management consultants WFD showed that 92 per cent of under-35s thought the work/life balance was very or fairly important. Coopers & Lybrand found that the chief goal of that most aspirational of groups - college business students - is to "achieve a balanced lifestyle and to have a rewarding life outside of work".
In her book Can You Have It All?, Nicola Horlick, Britain's most famous working mum, has told the world how it's possible to combine a top job in the City with looking after five children. For must of us, without a six-figure salary to oil the process, it's just a fairytale. Balancing necessity and desire can be a mundane and energy-sapping struggle. But the importance of hitting a work/life balance will grow, and demand the involvement of employers. The quality of the company culture, its ability to support and understand its people, will have to stand up to scrutiny, and not just the salary package.
It's happening already - and it's had to. The contract for life has clearly all but gone - along with many of the traditional motivational rewards that have accompanied old-style organisations. At the very time that they have been forced to strip out layers of management and slim down operations, organisations have placed new demands on their people, expecting them to give more of their time, energy and commitment to their work, as well as increasing their contribution in terms of flexibility and flair. This leaves the most awkward of paradoxes for employers: how do you motivate and harness effort when the rewards are less? Too often the answer to this is still the fear factor, with insecurity forcing people into spending more time in the office.
There are some companies which have spotted the relationship between work and the personal lives of staff, and the fact that they need to address their needs on an individual basis in order to release their potential, energy and commitment. After talking to staff about how they could improve their job satisfaction, Avon Cosmetics gave some the chance to work abroad, while others were allowed to organise more flexible working hours. Silicon Graphics is rolling out a programme for all its employees worldwide to think about how to manage their "personal growth" - and last Christmas in the UK, staff were being encouraged to bring their families into the office.
It's like fitting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Using a structured and constructive discussion between employees and their line manager, firms can align personal values with those of the organisation. This relies on people taking time to consider what their own priorities are to see how the work they do and the company culture fits in with these goals. What can be surprising is that addressing the work/life balance needn't mean a radical shift in the way you do things. It is not necessarily about working flexi-time or downshifting to a lower- paid, lower-level job. It is about managing the balance in a way that suits each individual. For some, working long hours is not an imposition - to them it means increased ownership and responsibility, and a sense of value to the business. To others, just the chance to leave on time every day can make all the difference. It is being able to make changes at work and home that enable people to have a satisfying career and home life without feeling guilty.
There is a strong undercurrent to what's happening in the workplace, and that's the rise of personal responsibility. If you want to sit back and be a "Corporation Joe" then watch out you don't get swept away, only to be washed up one day and wondering what it is you're getting from your job. It's the firms that allow people to take charge of their lives rather than trying to tell them who and what they should be, who'll find themselves with the right kind of energetic, innovative employees.
John Parkinson is consultant for organisational change at specialists, Blessing/White.