More and more office workers now can work flexibly: from home or a café, interspersed with the school run or a lunch with friends – and without the commute. Such flexibility brings opportunities and challenges for individuals and organizations, which we have researched thanks to funding by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust.
The advantages of flexible working are already well documented. It allows individuals to have greater control over their time and combine work with other commitments. Gone are the days when carers (particularly women) had to decide between working and caring. Now, parents and grandparents can attend a school play in the afternoon and catch up with work in the evening, helping them to improve their work-life balance. Or they can work at a nearby café whilst their offspring attends an extracurricular sport activity they needed a lift from parents to get to. Similarly, carers can now attend appointments with external parties during the day and finish off their work later without having to book time off, helping them to shoulder the burden. Our research (and that of others) has found that staff will often repay their organization by working longer and harder.
Indeed, most research participants told us that they frequently checked their work email in the evenings, on weekends and even on holiday. They are sacrificing time for rest and relaxation to stay connected with work, despite tension with their partners and families. Others told us that they did not take formal lunch breaks but instead ‘eat on the hoof’ in meetings or while working on the computer. Others again were found to log on to the work computer system in the middle of the night because they felt pressured to complete a high workload to the highest standards. Finally, some extended their work activities right into the territories typically associated with leisure: using every opportunity to source work-related content from shows or movies they watched in the evening, while seemingly relaxing.
Nevertheless, while some organizations embrace flexible working (mainly on cost grounds), others remain suspicious. There is concern that, if left to their own devices, staff working flexibly may not do their full eight hours, not fulfilling their contractual obligations. There is concern that staff working flexibly may do household chores during working hours, reducing productivity. There is concern that flexible working may affect the morale of those with office-based roles. Such concerns are understandable.
While some organizations rely on the honesty and commitment of their staff working flexibly, others impose strict controls on the availability of flexible working, the expected outputs and often also how the work is done. Some go as far as to attempt to minutely regulate working at a distance by sending time-sensitive email messages, which, if not responded to within a short period of time, disappear from the inboxes thus providing negative feedback on the flexible worker’s availability. Yet, paradoxically, our research has found that flexible workers can be less productive when working in the office. They explained that when they are physically present, they are assumed to be working productively. They reported that frequent tea breaks, long lunch breaks and shopping trips during working hours are common when in the office. Such reports contrast with their descriptions of flexible working days: an intense eight-hour stint in front of the computer with hardly any breaks.
Our research thus shows that organizations ought to be less concerned about a lack of commitment among their staff and more about them overworking. Our recommendations to organizations are:
(1) To review regularly individuals’ workload to ensure that the work can be done within the contracted hours and that staff can raise any concerns about overwork and stress;
(2) To scrutinize policies and procedures to ensure that they communicate what is expected from staff and what is not. For example, some organizations now expect staff to respond to work emails only between 8am and 6pm to protect their work-life balance and give them explicit permission to ‘switch off’ work; others designate specific working days when (bar emergencies) no prompt replies would be expected.
(3) To ensure that staff working flexibly have the tools to manage the responsibilities of flexible working constructively, both in terms of available technologies and individual psychological capacities. For example, to be able to prioritize, plan their work and manage their time, so that they can ‘switch off’ for the night, on weekends and during holidays. The training available to employees should go well-beyond advising on the physical arrangement of, for example, the home-working station, and address individual behavioural patterns and way in which they can be made sustainable to preserve the work-life balance. Our research indicates that in many cases such in-depth training is in short supply and its importance underestimated.
Our research further shows that individuals ought to be less concerned about not doing enough on flexible working days and more about ensuring that they take the necessary breaks. Our recommendations for flexible workers are:
(1) To discuss flexible working with their manager to ensure that they have clarity about what is expected from them in terms of availability and responsiveness;
(2) To take responsibility for their working day. For example, to track how much they are really working and when, to ensure that they take breaks and discuss any concerns about overload or stress with their manager;
(3) To consider how easily they can ‘switch off’ from work when it is so easy to just quickly check one’s work email on the smart phone and get carried away. Would a dedicated work phone or removal of the work email inbox from one’s smart phone help redress the balance?
As flexible workers ourselves, we are supportive of the cause. But our research highlights the pitfalls of flexible working and the need for organizations and individuals to ensure that they are getting the balance right between profitability and wellbeing. The trick is to be smart about flexible working!