Eight London companies that are revolutionizing work-life balance

These UK businesses prioritize their employees' satisfaction in and out of the office, and they're proving it in innovative ways

More than a buzzword and harder to achieve than anyone cares to admit, work-life balance is becoming a commodity. Workplaces in the UK are using it as a draw for new talent, while employees are evaluating it the same way they might compensation, benefits, and management style—as a reason for staying at or leaving a job. 

Part of this trend is driven by millennials who, according to research by CBRE, currently account for almost half the workforce and are expected to make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. This is a generation driven by experience rather than material things—and it’s no coincidence that their rise into professional life corresponds to a newfound appreciation for work-life balance

Despite this trend, the lines between work and life have become increasingly blurred, to the point that they are almost nonexistent. With the swift ascension of screens into every corner of our lives (our pockets, homes, cars, fridge doors), work has crept into our leisure time, and because of this, work-related stress is reaching record heights across the UK.

How big is the problem for UK employees?  

A recent report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK found that 595,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2017/18—and 239,000 of these were new cases reported that year alone. Unrealistic workload, lack of managerial support, changes at work, and bullying in the workplace were all significant contributors. And, in total, the mental-health crisis lead to 15.4 million working days lost in the UK over the year. 

Working overtime is a major issue, with 24 percent of 5,136 employees surveyed by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) working more than 10 hours every week above what their contract demands; 68 percent of these respondents would like more flexible work arrangements.

Despite the figures, just 8 percent of UK organizations offer stand-alone wellbeing strategies; instead, most companies opt for one-off or reactionary measures. The national Mental Health Foundation suggests implementing a workplace wellbeing strategy costs around £80 per employee per year, and will result in hundreds of thousands of pounds saved in the long term.

London companies are promoting the importance of work-life balance 

There are several annual guides—from the Sunday Times and LinkedIn to the self-proclaimed Best Companies Guide—that rank companies according to work-life balance. Company review sites like Glassdoor and Indeed also curate their own lists based on employee testimonials and star-ratings. 

We looked at these lists, alongside the work-life factors millennials in the UK most care about, to uncover the London companies revolutionizing work-life balance for their employees. For this generation, enjoying work and being physically and mentally healthy are ranked more highly than having an active social circle or earning money, according to research from Inkling and Censuswide. And employers looking to attract and retain talent need to tap into this mentality to stay competitive in the years ahead. 

We also chatted to WeWork member Adaptavist, a software provider at WeWork Two Southbank Place in Waterloo, about the tactics they’ve found successful in implementing workplace wellness, and how some common measures—unlimited annual leave and flexible working hours—really work in execution. 

“As a company, we’re more interested in working together to do what’s right, not what’s easy—and that takes a nuanced approach to the workplace and culture,” Adaptavist CEO Simon Haighton-Williams says. “We aim to employ the best minds, and to do that we create an environment where people have the freedom to solve problems and are liberated to implement the best solution for the business.” 

With this in mind, here are the top companies revolutionizing work-life balance for their employees in London, and beyond. You’ll find everything from removing set hours from legal contracts to offering childcare subsidies and individual gardening allotments. 

Sharing a vision at Diageo

There’s a certain predictability in a beer and spirits manufacturer offering a winning work-life balance: Diageo, currently headquartered in Park Royal and soon moving to Soho in Central London, is included in Glassdoor’s 2019 “Best Places to Work Employees’ Choice” and, in 2017, was ranked 11th on the “World’s Best Workplaces” list from Great Place to Work. 

Employee reviews of the company reference benefits, healthcare, a pension plan, and flexible working hours. The company’s annual report mentions team events and upward mobility for employees. But Diageo’s appearance on multiple lists likely comes from something bigger than that—from its commitment to the diversity and equality today’s workforce cares so much about

According to Inkling and Censuswide, the top three legacy factors millennials want to be remembered for are: the development of technology (40 percent), improvement in gender and LGBT equality (38.5 percent), and improvement in race relations (32.5 percent). Being environmentally responsible is another key theme, and there’s a strong undercurrent of acceptance of diversity in race, gender, and sexuality. 

It follows: If these values are incorporated into a workplace, the overall feeling will be one of fulfillment and therefore balance in work and life. 

Diageo is leading the charge in this arena. This year, a senior site manager at Diageo’s Talisker Distillery, Diane Farrell, was named on the “35 Women Under 35 2019” list from Management Today, which celebrates the nation’s most impressive women in business. The company also has five women on its 11-person board and is a signatory of the 30% Club, which promotes diversity at all levels.

Adaptavist employees at WeWork Two Southbank Place in London
Adaptavist employees at WeWork Two Southbank Place in London. Photograph courtesy of Micaela Karina

No time sheets (and a free gym membership) at The7Stars

Consistently featured in the Sunday Times‘s annual “100 Best Small Companies to Work For” over the last seven years—and also recognized on the list of “1,000 Companies to Inspire Britain” from the London Stock Exchange in 2017—Aldwych advertising agency The7Stars is busy “revolutionizing” across a range of sectors. 

A fully paid gym membership and weekly yoga and mindfulness sessions go lengths in improving the work-life balance of The7Stars employees. But flexibility in working hours and paid leave is where the company truly stands out. 

Holiday allowance is unlimited for all The7Stars employees (“We don’t want you disappearing for six months, we may miss you,” the company’s website jokes), and there are no contractually assigned working hours (“We don’t believe in time sheets. You work the hours you need to.”). 

According to Inkling’s research, physical and mental health topped the list (77 percent) for UK Millennials when asked what would most help them live a happier, more fulfilled life. And flexibility in working hours and location is a huge driving factor—whether that’s to eliminate a morning commute, allow for childcare commitments, or simply to provide time for exercise, family, leisure, and hobbies. 

A fresh approach to holiday time at Monzo 

Ranked number one on LinkedIn’s “Top Startups in the United Kingdom” in 2018 and 2017, Monzo is disrupting corporate culture—as well as the banking world. An online money-management company based in Finsbury Square, Monzo offers its employees weekly yoga and pilates classes in the office as well as frequent team-building events at different London locations, including go-karting, samba dancing, and board-game nights. 

Providing 32 days paid leave each year to employees, Monzo also shows commitment to the time its people spend outside the office. “Building a bank is a marathon, not a sprint,” its website states, understanding rested, well-traveled, rejuvenated employees are more valuable to the company as a whole. 

For those undertaking personal projects—whether traveling further abroad, learning a new language, or taking a pasta-making course, as the website suggests—Monzo offers an additional month of unpaid leave every year. 

The team at The7Stars in Aldwych, London.
The team at the7stars in Aldwych, London. Photograph courtesy of the7stars

Revolutionizing maternity leave at Unilever 

Selling everything from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to women’s personal-care products, global company Unilever (headquartered in Blackfriars, London) has a longstanding reputation for keeping employees happy. 

The conglomerate appeared on Glassdoor’s 2017 list of “Best Places to Work in the UK Employees’ Choice” and, according to Forbes, was one of the only organizations to report near pay parity in the same year. It’s listed on the Best Companies website and was named in a worldwide report on work-life balance as far back as 2011. 

The maternity leave policy at Unilever likely has much to do with this success. Offering 40 weeks maternity leave and 90 days paid adoptive leave, Unilever makes it easier on new parents to balance work and life, without feeling their job is at risk. Childcare support is offered by the company in emergencies, and some crèche facilities (along with gym memberships!) are also subsidized. 

Office massages and outdoor gardening at QVC UK

A novel approach to improving work-life balance is seen at television broadcaster in Chiswick Park, QVC UK. The shopping channel is recognized by the Top Employers Institute in the UK for “providing exceptional employee conditions” and consistently receives positive work-life balance reviews on Glassdoor. 

Perks at QVC UK include massages during lunch breaks and access to onsite beauticians, however, the company also encourages employees to get their hands dirty. Last year, QVC launched its first company allotment for employees to grow their own fruit and vegetables. 

This not only benefits employees—by getting people outside, eating well, and growing gardens alongside their careers—but the profits and produce are donated to local charities. This level of corporate responsibility, particularly on a local level, is often touted as a way to improve feelings of fulfillment and balance in employees. 

The team at The7Stars in Aldwych, London. Photograph courtesy of The7Stars
Photograph courtesy of the7stars

Fulfillment and innovation at EY

Work-life balance is about making the most of your time at work, as well as at home. And professional services firm Ernst & Young (EY), headquartered in London, is all about turning your work into something you’re wildly passionate about. In 2018, the firm ranked 19th on the “World’s Best Workplaces” list and eighth on LinkedIn’s Top Companies rankings. 

The company looks to grow “innovation-driven careers,” in which “powerful ideas unlock [employees’] full potential.” Feeling happy, motivated, and inspired at work also contributes to work-life balance, the financial firm argues.

As well as focusing on employee engagement, EY also runs a “Better You” program, in which mindfulness, sleep therapy, medical benefits, and fitness subsidies help encourage healthy out-of-hours habits. Flexibility in working hours, locations, and the ability to work in different countries add to the EY appeal—perhaps blending the lines between work and life but elevating both in the process. 

Incentivizing work-life balance at Forster Communications

This Whitechapel PR agency was named in 2017 by The Guardian as a leader in the space of wellness at work. With just 25 employees at the time, Forster Communications, a social-change agency, was developing a tool kit in conjunction with Business in the Community and Public Health England to address the problem of mental health and work-life balance (or lack thereof) in the PR space. The tool kit itself is free to download for employers in the UK and provides insights into physical activity, healthy eating, mental health, sleep and recovery, and improving mental wellbeing and productivity. 

The firm also walks the talk: It offers perks like early August workdays, flexible working arrangements, frequent events, and five weeks of annual leave a year. Most notable, however, is the way the company attempts to incentivize work-life balance. For example, employees can earn extra holiday time for cycling or walking to work or gain 50p cash back for every mile they spend actively traveling to meetings. 

Adaptavist employee at WeWork Two Southbank Place in London
Adaptavist employee at WeWork Two Southbank Place in London. Photograph courtesy of Micaela Karina

Accommodating all work styles at Adaptavist 

Adaptavist was named on the Sunday Times’s list of “100 Best Small Companies” in 2018 and 2019. And Haighton-Williams says the firm’s commitment to its people is best reflected in that “50 percent of our hires have come from internal recommendations of friends and former colleagues.”

According to Haighton-Williams, taking an “outcome-focused” approach to management helps cultivate work-life balance by “concentrating on the end result and how we get there rather than enforcing a prescribed amount of hours in a day.” 

“Adaptavist is a distributed global business—this means teams include people across different time zones, typically working from a WeWork,” he says. “There is really no traditional concept of staying late or starting early. It’s not unusual for people to split their days around work or their personal lives.” 

As for unlimited time off, it doesn’t only benefit the individual but also the company as a whole, Haighton-Williams argues. In fact, the extra planning and consideration required by such a policy helps bring departments together and cultivate a culture of understanding. 

“We still have guidelines and policies in place to ensure this does not negatively impact the business—e.g., not having an entire team off at once!” he says. “But these policies lead to collaboration between departments and accountability to every team. Managers need to be better prepared and more informed, which fosters communication, compassion, and compromise within teams.”

“By investing in our employees’ wellbeing off the clock, we can generate the best work environment and output for the business as a whole.” 

Finally, Haighton-Williams envisions a workplace in which all employees are given flexibility in the ways and hours they work: “We find that how and where people do their best is not a universal truth,” he says. “For example, we want to enable parents to be able to pick their kids up from work, night owls the freedom to leverage their ideal productivity time, and introverts the freedom to feel comfortable and supported from the comfort of their home offices.”

Whether it’s giving employees more time for themselves in annual leave policies and flexible working arrangements, or it’s implementing onsite measures like yoga classes and vegetable gardens, the benefits of workplace wellness programs extend far beyond the individual. With each fulfilled, balanced, happy employee, the benefits climb into the quality of their work, their organizational participation, and their overall performance. 

A diverse and impressive range of business types and models are revolutionizing work-life balance for their employees in London, and this is no better reflected in the way they’re revolutionizing other aspects of business as well. 

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