Barbara Holmes

on Tuesday, 15 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Issues Motivated Leadership

Barbara Holmes
Managing Director, Managing Work/Life Balance
Barbara Holmes

Barbara Holmes is the Managing Director of Managing Work | Life Balance. She has over 25 years experience as a Human Resources Consultant, specialising in Organisational Change and Employee Involvement programs.

Barbara has spoken at work/life/diversity conferences in New Zealand, Singapore, London, and New York, and at a number of events in Australia.

In 2005 Barbara was an adjudicator for the Work/Life Award given as part of the 2005 Australian HR Awards. They are the leading event for recognition of benchmark HR practice in Australia and recognise excellence across the entire spectrum of the HR profession.

During 2006/7 Barbara conducted the 10th Annual Work / Life Initiatives –The Way Ahead Benchmarking study Nearly 300 organisations participate in this study that delivers participants with a Best Practice ranking of their efforts as well as statistical data that highlights some of the benefits that have accrued to organisations who could be regarded as being at the ‘leading edge’ in the implementation of a focussed work/life strategy.

During the ten years of the research the findings have been reported in The Australian Financial Review, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, BRW and the CCH Human Resources Journal.

Projects have included:- 

  • The launch of the Flexible Work Options Tool Kit – which is A ‘how too’ Guide for Managers and Employees on the implementation of flexible work options. This resource is now used by organisations such as The Child Support Agency, The Federal Police, Mallesons Stephen Jacque, Minter Ellison and the Commonwealth Bank. 
  • Providing advice and guidance to the Singapore Government on the upgrade of their national Work/Life Awards for industry. This project included providing advice and recommendations on the application, adjudication and recognition processes.
  • Facilitating workshops in Singapore on the development and implementation of Work/Life Strategies in the private and public sector.
  • NT Government The MWLB consulting team led by Barbara won 2 competitive Tenders with the Northern Territory Government. The first was to design and deliver workshops for both managers and employees on how to (i) balance their work/life responsibilities and (ii) manage employees with work/life issues and implement flexible work arrangements.  The second was to provide advice and guidance on the implementation of the NT Govt Pilot work/life strategy and in particular the implementation of flexible work options. A key component of this assignment was to train trainers to deliver in-house training on the implementation of a range of flexible options.  

 Barbara has also written:-

§        A manager/employee Tool Kit on implementing flexible work arrangements

§        A Childcare Information Kit

§        An Eldercare Information Kit

She has been invited to speak at work/life events and conferences in Singapore, New Zealand, The USA and England as well appearing on national television and The Life Matters program on ABC radio.

Interview with Barbara Holmes

Why should there be work/life balance policies and practices in any workplace?  

There are a number of sound business reasons for implementing policies and practices that support employees with work/life responsibilities and issues:- 

There is now an established body of evidence that shows there are real bottom line benefits for the employer to invest time and effort in such options. In an employment environment where there are shortages of skilled and experienced employees, employers have to differentiate themselves from their competitors, offering options such as flexible work arrangements, paid parental leave, access to health and fitness programs etc is one way of doing this. 

Data from research such as the Managing Work|Life Balance Annual National Work/Life Benchmarking Study shows that in Best Practice organisations (that is those organisations that have a well established work/life strategy and a culture that is responsive to the needs of staff) employee engagement is likely to be higher than in other organisations. There is also likely to be an increased commitment to client/customer service. 

Organisations who offer paid maternity leave are likely to have a higher % of staff returning from maternity leave.

Recent data from the 2007 Fortune 100 report showed that 4 of the top 25 organisations have been recognised for the excellence of their work/life strategies. 

In New Zealand the EEO Trust has just published data which shows that promoting and supporting work/life strategies in the workplace results in a workforce that is more committed and give greater discretionary effort at work.

What are some of the major concerns employers have in offering work/life balance flexibility and how do you deal with these issues?

Employers are often concerned about the fair application of their flexible work options policies and the fact that there may be a mass of people all asking for less than full time work. In reality whilst a number of people will initially be interested in a flexible arrangement – most times this evens out and is generally manageable. 

More often the concerns are raised by team leaders who have to manage the local situation and are concerned about getting the work done and managing customer requirements, these are very real and valid concerns especially where the team leader has little or no experience in managing people who work flexibly. 

Managing Work|Life Balance International has developed a Flexible Work Options Tool Kit that has information for both the employee and the manager and helps them in the initial set up and decision making phase as well as the implementation of the flexible work arrangement.  We also advise the client to provide training for the team leaders on how to mange a flexible work environment and respond appropriately to requests for flexibility. We do (of course) facilitate these programs for clients when requested.

Can you specify which organizational work/life balance practices are proving to be of most benefit to individuals?

This is a little more difficult as each person’s work/life needs will be different and there is no ‘one-size fits all’ solution. In general many individuals find that some type of flexible work arrangement -  be that; less than full time work, job share, working from home etc gives the opportunity to better manage many of their work/life responsibilities.

How does gender, age and socio-economic status of individuals affect the type of work/life practices that are designed for workplaces?

When I first started working in this area some 17 years ago the focus was predominantly on women’s issues and the need for affordable childcare. Then there was a push to recognise that men too have children and are carers and have work/life needs. What we have learnt over time is that the majority of employees have some sort of work/life need or responsibility and that this will change with age, family circumstances, financial situation and changes in the workplace.

The challenge for the employer is to recognise the diversity of issues within the workplace and to not favour one group, over another. This can be quite challenging as our own values and beliefs have the potential to influence the situation and the decision making process, For example a manager with strong family values may give preference to someone wanting to work less than full time, who has a child, rather than someone who wants to work flexibly because of their study responsibilities. In reality both reasons should be regarded as equally valid.

How can leaders identify what types of work/life balance initiatives are needed to suit their organization?

This is a really important issue as whilst we know that there are some essential basics to be covered, such as the introduction of flexible work practices and various leave options there is a very broad range of other options that can be introduced, such as; health and wellness programs, or gym membership and/ or employee assistance programs.

Most Best Practice organisations undertake a detailed work/life needs assessment (survey of all staff) that identifies not only the work/life needs off staff but also highlights potential roadblocks to change – such as the attitudes of managers and team leaders, or organisational practices. Such a process also allows the organisation to focus in the bottom line issues such as retention, absenteeism and employee engagement that will be addressed by the implementation of work/life strategies.

Some organisations rely on their culture survey to deliver this data, and whilst it can deliver some useful information – our experience with a number of organisation has shown that this data is not always specific enough to provide the data that can be used to make decisions on investing in specific work/life programs and resources.  For example a high % of employees may respond that they believe that on-site childcare would help them. However, further in-depth analysis is likely to find that a much lower % would actually use an on-site centre. Much depends on the structure of questions and this is where professional help can be invaluable.

The data collection and analysis process is really critical to the ongoing success of the strategy. It will also provide data that can be used in the longer term to evaluate the success of the various components of the strategy and changes within the workforce in the way that work/life issues are addressed.

How can organizations or leaders assess the effectiveness of their work/life balance initiatives?

Organisations such as Westpac Bank, the ANZ Bank , Freehills, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Mallesons, have all measured the effectiveness of their programs and can show demonstrable returns on their investment.

The data from the 2007 National Work/Life Benchmarking Study[ 1] clearly shows that Best Practice organisations are achieving significant returns on their investment through improved attraction rates, increased employee satisfaction and reduced turnover rates.

The key to the measurement process is to collect the initial data (see previous questions answers) that will direct your efforts. Measures such as retention rates, absenteeism, employee engagement, return rates form parental leave, client service standards, team profitability are generally used.

Should one expect the implementation of work/life balance initiatives to be at a cost to the organization’s profit margin? Are there examples of private sector organizations adopting work/life balance programs and finding this not to be the experience?

It really depends on the options that the organisation chooses to put into place. Whilst programs such as health and fitness activities may require an initial investment the pay off generally comes from fitter healthier employees who may take less sick leave.  Options such as flexible work arrangements are generally low cost options

How do you regard the view that work/life balance schemes are open to abuse by those who take advantage of them?

Yes some will try, just as some will try to abuse other schemes and programs within the organisation. However, just as the team leader manages employee performance in other aspects of their job, so managers need to manage their access and useage of work/life schemes.

What are the difficulties you experience in changing the mindsets of managers and leaders about developing a focus on work/life issues?

I have learnt that I need to find the trigger that will help managers and leaders understand the need for work/life issues in their organisation. For some it’s understanding the business imperative. For others it’s about wanting their organisation to be regarded as a good corporate citizen or a Best Practice company. It is then easier to build the case for change and to persuade them of the importance of work/life strategies for their organisation.

What has shaped your interest in this area?

A long time interest and professional involvement in promoting and supporting women in the workplace, both here and in the UK. This has developed into to promoting change in the way that work is done so that all staff are able to work in an environment that is fair and responsive to a diverse range of work/life needs.

What resources do you draw upon for your professional development and practice in this area?

Most development opportunities come from overseas assignments and working with work/life consultants and researchers in the UK and the USA. As well as actively keeping in touch with local changes and developments in the areas of human resources management.

Are there more women than men working as consultants in this area? What observations do you make about the qualifications and experience necessary to work in this area as a consultant?

There are generally more women than men working in this area. They come from a range of backgrounds, HR Practitioners, Consultants, Lawyers, Academics and Carer specialists.  My experience would suggest that a successful consultant needs to have had experience managing people, a good understanding of HR Practices and Employment Legislation, excellent people and consulting skills, be self motivated and confident to work at all levels of an organisation and most importantly be a good problem solver, and have a sense of humour!

What are some of your likes and dislikes about working in this area?

I really enjoy working with people, having the opportunity to be creative and innovative, and working with clients to implement changes that will support their staff.  There are rarely two days the same, working in my own business allows me many choices and flexibility. There are few dislikes although sometimes the amount of travelling I do can be challenging - but of course there are benefits in seeing and working in new places with new people. An assignment in Tennant Creek meant that I drove four hours through the Outback from Alice Springs to Tennant Creek and saw some amazing country. Overall the last seventeen years have been exhilarating sometimes exhausting but mostly very rewarding.

[ 1]Conducted by Managing Work|Life Balance International  - annually. The Executive Summary is linked to this article, or can be found at