Work-life balance signifies the extent to which an employee experiences feeling fulfilled and having her or his needs met in both work and personal facets of life. This has important implications for both an employee’s personal well-being and productivity at work. While the Anglo developed countries have seen considerable research in this area over the last four decades, the developing Asian countries have missed this deserved attention. Work-life management is becoming a key concern for employees in many Southeast Asian countries because the rapid growth of developing local economies often requires long hours and overtime at work. Moreover, demographic trends like the increase in ageing population, decline in working-age population growth and increase in participation of women in the paid workforce are starting to have a major impact on work-life management issues faced by employers and employees.
The Southeast Asian pursuit of Indian MNCs
The 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) collectively form the fifth-largest economy in the world with a combined GDP of roughly $2.8 Tn as of 2017 and a population of about 640 million. But it is the younger, more affluent, and tech-savvy population across Southeast Asia that has caught the attention of Indian companies who are rapidly shifting gears to enter this market. While Indian business giants looking at Southeast Asia as an investment destination isn’t new, the opportunity is proving to be lucrative for Indian startups as well because of the growing market and access to better financial infrastructure facilities – the latest entrant being the hospitality firm OYO Rooms. As these organizations go southeast with their HRM practices, they face a key question: How much of their existing idea of work-life management is applicable to the Southeast Asian context?
Cultural context and work-life management
Despite a gamut of literature and seemingly reliable best practices being available on work-life management, it would be imprudent on the part of HR leaders to administer these practices in Southeast Asia without discerning the cultural context. Culture is found to have both constitutive and regulatory effects on how people behave in the labour market. An employee’s evaluation of job attributes – such as income, benefits, job title or responsibilities – as well as the consequent preference for a certain kind of job is influenced by the cultural context. It is for this reason that it is essential to understand the Southeast Asian context before taking decisions aimed to improve the work-life balance of these employees.
For the lack of a uniformly accepted definition of work-life management and for a structured analysis of the subject, we categorize these initiatives into three primary areas – flexible working conditions, leave options and dependent care.
Flexible working conditions
Most of the researchers agree on two broad categorizations in terms of flexibility: temporal flexibility i.e. flexibility in the scheduling or the number of hours of work (e.g. flexitime or part-time work) and place flexibility i.e. flexibility in the place of work (e.g. telecommuting). But flexible work options are found suitable mainly for software companies, consultants or service companies whose jobs allow flexibility due to their nature of work. Interestingly, services industry accounted for more than 98% of Indian FDI in ASEAN between 2012-2016, about 60 percent of which went to finance and insurance. Also, among all Indian services industries investing in ASEAN between 2005-2010, the largest number of firms (223) were in IT and ITeS. Accordingly, a large number of Indian firms might actually consider providing flexible work options like flexi-time or telecommuting to their full-time employees.
But telecommuting might not catch up as much as flexi-time in Southeast Asian context due to the cultural expectations of constant availability (for attending meetings, for example) and apprehensions that it may do more harm than good as the line between work and life will become more blurry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that telecommuting employees may find it more difficult to shut off their “work mode” leading to increased stress. Also, flexi-time is believed to be the safest alternative for MNCs for introducing fluidity in companies. This will not only help employers in gauging employee response but also set up the stage for more courageous flexibility options in future.
The traditional family roles (stay-at-home mother, breadwinner father) in Southeast Asia are being replaced by workplace structures and roles based on the dual-earner model. The proportion of dual-career families is increasing in Southeast Asia where the participation of women in the paid workforce is close to 70 percent. In comparison, this number is a mere 27 percent in India where occupational segregation has disproportionately benefitted men. Consequently, companies face the risk of creating huge work-life conflict for employees by implementing work systems that have largely evolved around the notion of “single breadwinner.”
Companies aiming to attract and retain young talent will have to focus on leave options over and above the government mandated provisions. Consider, for example, Parental Benefits. While paid maternity leave in India was recently increased to 26 weeks from 12 weeks, most ASEAN countries still provide a maternity leave of around 12-16 weeks. This provides an opportunity for Indian employers to go beyond the mandates and improve their value propositions. Interestingly, companies like IKEA are choosing the road less-travelled by offering a month-long paternity leave instead of tweaking the existing maternity leave for all its Southeast Asia employees.
According to WHO statistics, the proportion of population older than 65 years and life expectancy at birth both have shown a rapid improvement during the last decade for Southeast Asia – unsurprisingly indications that the population in Southeast Asia is ageing. This trend will have a number of implications for the long-term organization of work because a greater number of Southeast Asian employees will be responsible for the care of elderly dependents. Family roles are more intense in Southeast Asia than in India because of being more collectivist than India and having a strong influence of Confucianism. Their family loyalty is also apparent in the fact that Indonesian families are expected to keep elders (such as grandparents) at home instead of sending them to any institutions. In addition to that, a lot of individuals in their thirties or early forties are required to address the simultaneous demands for caring for the elderly as well as supporting the children – aptly called the “sandwich generation.” It would be a challenge for employers to retain this talent as they face increasing demands on their time and fewer degrees of freedom to deal with work issues.
Action items for impact
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for work-life management. Companies will need to evaluate each alternative on a case by case basis keeping the business environment and cultural differences in mind. A mix of different policies, practices and strategies will be crucial in reducing the possible work-life conflicts and eventually improve the value proposition for employees.
- Make provisions for returning mothers to help them in managing their re-entry into the organization after maternity leave. Even informal arrangements for making this transition will go a long way for the employer brand.
- Provide health insurance coverages that include parents or in-laws in addition to children and partner with well-known hospitals to provide quality healthcare services to the elderly.
- Compile a list of quality child care and elder care providers to help those employees who can afford them but are pressed on time to arrange them.
- Promote cultures that encourage utilization of these benefits because these initiatives can only have their intended effects on employees if they feel they can use these options without facing negative consequences.
- Sensitize and prepare managers for possible fallouts like a culture of discrimination towards the beneficiaries. The absence of management support will be a step backwards in the pursuit of a successful work-life management.