Flexible working time, once a perk for successful professionals, has gone mainstream. From June 30, the right to request flexible working will be extended to all workers in the UK. In a time where most benefits are being cut rather than expanded, this is a remarkable policy development.
The introduction and the quick extension of this right is mostly due to employers believing it increases productivity, while also benefiting employees. In fact, there is no lack of evidence to show the business case for the use of flexible work arrangements – such as flexitime and teleworking – in the workplace.
However, we should be cautious about extending these rights. Many people, especially small and medium sized business owners are wary of some of the costs involved and the difficulties in managing a flexible workforce. It’s obviously much harder to round up your staff when they’re scattered about and you don’t even know who is “on call” at any given time.
But exactly what does flexible working mean for employees themselves? In theory, such arrangements give employees more freedom and autonomy to fit their working world in with other aspects of their lives, most importantly family life. However, what most of us fail to recognise is the potential negative effect flexible working can have for workers.
Flexible work can mean a move from time based work (a 9 to 5 in the office, for instance) to task based work – working anywhere and anytime you want but having clearer list of tasks to complete. For some, this means workers themselves have the responsibility to set their own working hours, but this freedom could also end up with “work that never ends”.
Academics are a typical example. Most of us these days have contracts with no clear weekly working hours, nor specified holidays. However, we are given a set number of tasks that need to be done throughout the year in terms of teaching and administrative roles, and given a target to achieve in terms of published research. The problem is workers are then put in a very competitive environment and encouraged to achieve more and better outputs. More papers published, more students taught, departments run better than ever on a diminishing budget. This ends up with academics having one of the most demanding and stressful jobs with a third working 50 hours or more a week.
The problem is not just confined to academics in the UK; it occurs in high-status professional careers throughout the world. Empirical evidence has linked flexible working to longer working hours, increased time pressure and greater work intensity in other countries and other occupations.
What is more, flexibility can actually taint what is left of our time with our family. In the iPhone era we are able work whenever and wherever we want, or don’t want. Again this leads to work spilling over into our private lives. Just think about the times where you check and respond to your work emails while taking care of your children or at night in bed. Many of us end up with the idea that I can and thus I should be working right now, without ever being able to completely switch off.
We also need to think about what flexibility means when it is irreversible. For example, many companies, councils and other government offices are enforcing teleworking for many workers to cut the cost of building rents. But what happens when you want to work in the office again, when there are no offices to go back to?
The same dilemma occurs for part-time workers. Although you might want to reduce working hours while your children are young, there are no guarantees of increased hours in the future and making the wrong decision could harm your career.
The key story is this. Increased flexibility at work does allow us to do many things that were not possible before and, yes, this does have the potential to provide workers with a better work-life balance.
However, we need to be aware of the honey trap where the sweetness of freedom lures us into ever diminishing boundaries between work and life, a job that never ends, or into making irreversible decisions that have dire consequences for our future careers.
We need much more evidence on exactly when flexibility can work and for whom, and on what we can do to prevent the downside. Only then can be be truly confident that this new policy will be a success.