Guest blog: Flexible Working: panacea or placebo? - By Sir Brendan Barber, Chair, Acas

Flexible work does seem the smart solution

For many years flexible working has been seen as something of a panacea for many attendance and work-life balance issues. Whether you want to avoid staff taking sickness absence, help them to get back to work quickly if they are off, or help them manage caring and child responsibilities, then flexible working is often your go to solution. It has certainly been strongly promoted by my previous and current employer – TUC and Acas!

The figures back the case, with almost 97% of employers offering some form of flexible working (and 60% of employees working flexibly in 2011). And it feels intuitively right that in a world where, for many, the line between work and home is increasingly blurred, then rigid ideas about nine to five working should be stretched.

Thanks largely to new technology, the potential for flexible work does seem to be walking hand-in-hand with innovation and creativity into a more progressive future. But the story for labour market flexibility remains complex.    

So why do rigid perceptions of flexibility still persist?

Acas research has identified some of the problems with selling flexible working to managers and to all staff (particularly men); and with overcoming the stigma that surrounds those that work differently to what is often still considered the norm.

It can be tempting to see flexible working arrangements from two different viewpoints:

·         Working flexibly reflects a ‘part-time’ investment in work. If you work from home you are as likely to be hanging the washing out as drafting that paper

·         Working flexibly means that you value your autonomy and know what works best for you and the business. Acas research certainly shows that flexible workers can be more focussed and organised than their colleagues (but face-to-face time is the key).

Although many of the cultural and demographic pointers seem to be directing us towards a more flexible approach to when, where and for how long we work, the old ways are still digging their heels in.

Maybe it’s time to reflect on what we have learnt about our relationship with work over recent years:

·         Many workplaces are multi-generational (with 4G, even 5G, not uncommon) and many employees have caring responsibilities for young dependants as well as ageing parents and relatives. Add to the mix the increasingly likelihood of the ‘100 year life’, and fluidity is bound to be important.

·         The Future of Work’ report published by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2014 contained the startling statistic that “92 per cent of Gen Y participants identify flexibility as a top priority when selecting a workplace.”

·         Mental health is no longer a landmark to be navigated past, but the landscape in which we live and work. One in four of us will have a problem as some point in our working lives and will need the help and support of people at work and home working together.

·         Although there is a lively debate on this issue, it feels as if ‘integrators’ (those that favour blended lives where work and home life overlap), may be holding sway over ‘segmentors’ (those who prefer to keep clear lines between work and home). The ‘always on’ culture doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Flexible working can have its pitfalls

To those who feel flexible working is something of a luxury and that many employees are being indulged, then our research paints a very different, nuanced picture. Some key findings showed that:

·         Flexible workers can be more focussed and more organised than their colleagues but misunderstandings can develop without face-to-face contact.

·         Flexible working can reduce work-life conflict, with less commute time for example, but it can also blur the work and home divide (for those people that still have one)

·         Flexible workers can be subject to self-generated work intensification, because they feel obliged to give back to a company that they feel has accommodated their needs.

·         Requests for flexible working must be handled fairly and staff managed properly for everyone to buy into the different work patterns.

And the verdict is?

So, does working flexibly – whether that is agile, mobile or remote – mean you are working more wisely? Are you smarter?

For me it comes down to one issue that has been slightly over-looked in the debate so far. That is employee autonomy. Every indicator on what drives good workplace outcomes – whether it be wellbeing, productivity, or staff satisfaction – places individual autonomy as one of its key drivers.

Going against the norm can be brave, and asking a manager for a different work arrangement often means discussing personal issues outside work. We seemed to understand that people often know what works best for them, and that this can often also be what’s best for the business.  So why did we start to doubt ourselves?

Yes, with the wrong organisational culture, flexible working can be a placebo – just something that sounds good and helps with the company brand. But if it is promoted from the top and sold equally to men and woman (this will certainly help with the gender pay gap) then it can be the smartest way to think about work and one of the best ways to promote wellbeing, productivity and gender equality.