A role offering more responsibility and a higher salary has usually been enough to lure Chinese managers to another company. But this year, candidates are demanding even more from employers, putting work-life balance at the top of their priority list.
According to a MRI China Group survey of more than 3,000 mid- to senior-level managers in mainland China and Hong Kong, the three biggest motivators for candidates to make a job move are an increase in responsibility, compensation and improved work-life balance. It’s the first time that lifestyle has ranked so highly as both an employee retention and attraction factor in the recruitment firm’s annual talent index.
“Most of the white-collar market has moved through a cycle of very rapid compensation and responsibility increases over the last five years,” said Chris Watkins, MRI’s country manager for mainland China and Hong Kong.
“Our interpretation [of the data] is basically that these guys now want it all: more money, more responsibility and work-life balance.”
The rising trend is also due to a shift in demographics: Over the last five years, there has been a rise in the number of managers in the 30-40 age range who are buying a house or car, having a child and looking to settle down. Meeting work-life expectations will likely be difficult for the country’s firms – especially at a time when these needs are loosely defined and the war for talent is on.
Job seekers’ market
Recruiters argue that China is currently a job seeker’s market. Despite the high number of college graduates in China – more than 6.3 million entered the job market in 2010 – companies are facing a talent shortage for positions requiring more expertise. About 64% of MRI’s survey respondents said they received at least one job offer in the past 18 months. Of this group, 73% received two or more offers.
“In China, there’s been a high demand for employees in general,” said Mette Leger, managing director for Grow HR, a human resources firm based in Shanghai. “In the fourth quarter of 2010, many companies increased in size, but there was a shortage of talent. That means it’s now more important that companies think about how to attract and retain candidates.”
This includes taking a more proactive strategy, instead of simply fattening the wallets of candidates and employees. Watkins stresses the importance of coming up with sustainable remuneration packages that companies can afford and finding a way to manage employee expectations. “You can’t have 30-40% salary increases, promotions and work-life balance,” he said.
Whether it’s the responsibility of employers is also debatable. One recent survey by Hays, a global recruitment firm, showed that about 40% of workers in China think work-life balance is attainable, but say it is up to themselves to make it happen. A further 36.6% of respondents said a flexible employer is the key to managing professional and family commitments.
At the same time, the meaning of work-life balance isn’t easy to define. Expectations are specific to each individual. And while candidates often have demands about travel and work schedules, other aspects – like pressure – are more difficult to measure.
Personal needs often change, too. “In China, families can hire ayis to help with housework. Parents sometimes live with their adult children to help them with the kids. In this case, I feel it’s easier to balance work and home life,” said a Shanghai-based marketing director, who works in the consumer electronics industry and asked to remain anonymous. “When I worked in Canada, I had to do housework by myself, so work-life balance was a very critical issue for me.”
The Chinese definition of work-life balance also differs greatly from that of Western countries, where human resource divisions tend to play a more active role in shaping employees’ expectations. In an emerging market like China, however, Leger argues that the concept is still in its early stages and developing organically out of cultural norms.
One example of the different perceptions of work and play is seen with corporate parties. In the West, most employees prefer that their companies host nighttime soirees, to which workers can bring their spouses. Chinese staff, however, tend to favor events held earlier in the day so that they can go home to their families.
Watkins believes that age plays a big role in how Chinese employees perceive work-life balance as well. While older generations didn’t have the luxury of prioritizing their personal lives, most Chinese born after 1978 have a different perspective. “[This age group] is an emerging class of people that have experienced the greatest wealth creation in the country’s history, and other things are becoming more important,” Watkins said.
Still, those who are in the early stages of their career usually see professional growth as a top priority. For example, David Ju, a merchandiser for clothing retailer Zara, said that work-life balance wasn’t a motivating factor for leaving his previous job. “Work is work, family life is family life. They cannot be mixed,” he said.
Down the road, things may change: Ju admits that success involves not only achievements in business, but also having a good family life.
That’s something that the Shanghai-based marketing director knows all too well. “I think I realized that work-life balance is important at 35,” she said. “My daughter brought on this change. I realized I needed to spend more time with her. Otherwise, I would miss the most important time of her life.”