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We can all profit by fitting work around life

In recent years all sorts of organisations have embraced the concept of the "work/life balance" - at least, to the extent of talking about it.

A survey launched this month by Management Today in conjunction with Ceridian Performance Partners, a work/life consultant, is just the latest evidence of a growing fixation. Everyone agrees that achieving a better balance between work and life is a good idea, but few have much of a clue about how to pull it off - especially at a time when workplaces seem to be under unremitting pressure. So, instead, we talk about it all the time.

But this does not mean that nobody is trying to put schemes into place. For example, as Sandra Deeble points out in her article on Working Options (Smart Moves, page 7 of this section), more smaller businesses are signing up for a register of part-timers.

This can clearly be seen as one of those "win-win" situations where companies which cannot afford a full-time finance or marketing director get one at a rate they can afford by employing somebody who may previously have held down an impressive full-time role but no longer wishes to work all the time.

Other organisations, especially those such as banks and supermarkets which have traditionally employed significant numbers of women, have gone to great lengths to adapt themselves to the needs of working mothers.

Even professional firms have sought to meet the increasing demands of their clients by providing opportunities for women to rise to the top of their organisations and still take lengthy periods of leave and/or work more flexibly.

Though nobody should question the wisdom or courage of such an approach, it has left those responsible open to the accusation that they are favouring a segment of their workforces - chiefly women with children, but also in some cases men with children or people of either sex with responsibility for aged relatives - at the expense of the rest.

Never mind that the managers of such organisations can make out sound business cases for doing their utmost to hang on to such people. And never mind that all the management talk of the moment is about "thinking out of the box", creativity and escaping the confines of the accepted ways of doing things.

There is a feeling that you can only qualify for such "preferential" treatment if you have responsibilities that conflict with conventional working hours.

Hats off, then, to Lloyds TSB. Last week the bank announced a revised scheme which essentially takes the line that flexibility is for everybody who wants it.

More than one in five of the bank's employees is already working flexibly. But displaying the lack of complacency that is probably a significant factor in it becoming the toast of the banking community, Lloyds has, with the help of Ceridian, come up with a programme that allows employees to apply for flexibility for just about any reason.

The key is that they satisfy their managers that the business will not suffer as a result.

Fiona Cannon, the Lloyds TSB manager responsible for the programme, admits that many of her colleagues will have trouble getting used to managing people who are not there all the time.

But the bank is arranging a "support package" to help them deal with the shock. And it appears to believe this is a price worth paying, as research suggests that flexible working can actually increase productivity.