Interview with work-life balance expert Peter Thomson

Jamin Robertson talks to Henley Management College’s work-life balance expert, Peter Thomson, who advocates that managers must re-examine performance measurement and adopt more flexible working practices to help boost engagement

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Many HR managers are shackled by outdated management techniques that reinforce the concept of presenteeism. However, allowing employees total control over how they work can have a positive impact on staff motivation, leaving employers to reap the reward of a switched-on workforce. Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College, believes organisations need to respond to a demand from employees for more flexible working patterns. “To motivate people, one of the key things to do is to give them freedom and control over their own destiny. Motivation theory for years has been talking about empowering people and trusting them, something managers find quite difficult particularly in a world of remote working where trusting and letting go means giving people the freedom to do the job. The best way to motivate people is the opposite: to stand back and provide support, encouragement, training and guidance but not command and control.” He adds that the latter is fast becoming an outdated style of management. “But it’s amazing the number of managers who still manage that way, and amazing the number of HR departments that have policies which say you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. That just reinforces presenteeism.”

Thomson believes that allowing employees to work flexibly can help to boost productivity. “If you actually trust employees [and] say to them ‘you choose when you need to get together’, it becomes similar to employing a contractor. You don’t care when and where they get [the work] done. If they’re self-motivated and get it done quickly, they’re rewarded with more free time.” He adds that this approach should extend beyond the limited flexitime arrangements that many firms currently operate. “Effectively, core hours says ‘we still don’t trust you to manage your own hours, you’ve still got to be here between 10am and 12 noon’. True motivation is giving [staff] complete freedom.” Introducing flexible working arrangements can also help to engage employees of all ages with their employer. “It’s to do with giving people an environment where they can self-motivate. We’ve got a younger generation which values freedom and flexibility as much as financial compensation.

Time is often more valuable than money. “People who are in their 50s actually want more flexibility, particularly those that wish to partially retire. If you work till you’re [aged] 65 and retire, you go from fully useful to fully useless in a day. More flexible working patterns allow people to work shorter hours or part time. “Then you’ve got people in their middle years, bringing up a family, who desperately want to see their kids.” But many organisations have been slow to emphasise the life in work-life balance. “Conventional work practices say ‘you are contracted to sit at this desk from 9am to 5.30pm’. What we do is tend to reward people for staying late and working long hours. Rather than motivating people it does the opposite, it encourages people to slow down and be less productive in order to stay late and look like heroes. Most of our management reward systems reward inefficiency.” This idea of choice should not only be limited to employees’ working arrangements. “

Flexible benefits is a way of showing the individual is not just a cog in a big machine. If they can exercise some choice in the benefits they have and tailor them to their own particular needs, that is much more motivating than telling an individual ‘you’ve got these [set] benefits’ when they’re not going to use half of them because they don’t apply,” says Thomson. And ensuring staff remain motivated is vital if employers are to recruit and retain top performers. “You are only going to get and keep the best people if you have got the right environment,” explains Thomson.


Peter Thomson is director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College. Thomson founded the Forum in 1992 as a centre of expertise in the development of new working practices. This followed an 18-year career as personnel director for IT firm Digital. His fields of expertise include the effect of IT on working patterns and work-life balance theories. Thomson is also director of Wisework, a consultancy which specialises in flexible working.