IF YOU are hoping for more work-life balance, convince your manager. Middle management has been identified as one of the possible key reasons why flexible work arrangements are often hard to implement.

A study commissioned by Employer Alliance - a network of corporations that promotes work-life integration - found that middle managers are often caught between meeting short-term productivity goals and the long-term work-life policies set out by their firms.

Other challenges for companies include rigid organisational structures, where bosses adopt traditional notions of the 'ideal worker', and poor assessment tools.

The study was conducted by sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan, vice-dean of the National University of Singapore's arts and social sciences faculty.

Employer Alliance asked Dr Straughan in August to compile local and international studies on work-life balance. More than 50 relevant articles from journals, books and research reports were reviewed for the study. Dr Straughan presented her findings to human resource professionals and employers at an Employer Alliance annual conference yesterday. 

Experts said middle managers sometimes find it hard to implement flexible work arrangements because they are caught in the middle.

Mr Pan Zaixian, a director at headhunting firm Robert Walters, said: 'Some middle managers have different bosses with different agendas - you have to satisfy your boss and the one who is concerned about human resource policies, such as encouraging work-life balance.'

'Sometimes, the people who say they want work-life balance are the ones who give tough key performance indicators... so there's a conflict there.'

Mr Freddy Yu, a general manager at retail store BabyBaby, agreed. 'The top level approach is to make profits and minimise expenses, while employees are looking for ways to maximise their welfare,' he said.

But he coped by being more transparent with staff about such arrangements.

He recalled a staff member who wanted to work a five-day week instead of six, due to family problems. 'Worried that others would think it's not fair, I asked her if she was comfortable with sharing a bit of her problem with her colleagues... she agreed and everyone is clear on why she was allowed that arrangement,' he said.

Besides getting the managers on board, companies must also 'debunk' traditional notions of the ideal worker, said Dr Straughan.

'Currently, in order to be perceived as a team player or committed, one has to play by expectations, such as always being in the office till a certain time, or doing overtime work,' she said. 'So the management should look at new ways of performance assessment that won't make employees feel inferior for taking up other options.'

Therefore, firms should also professionalise part-time work, she said - for example, by including part-timers in training and opportunities for promotion.

Yesterday, three awards were given out to employees who had inspiring work-life integration stories to tell. Organised by Employer Alliance, the My Work-Life Story Contest is now in its second year. It drew 50 submissions, and the three winners were from KK Women's and Children's Hospital, 361 Degree Consultancy and Maybank.

Mr Hawazi Daipi, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower and Education, who spoke at the event, cited a Singapore National Employers Federation-StrategiCom study last year. In that study, work-life balance was ranked the third-most important attribute in talent attraction, and the fifth-most important when it comes to staff retention. 'At some point in the future, flexible work arrangements will no longer be 'good or nice to have' but rather a must-have,' he said.