Flexible working has changed how businesses operate. Technological developments have made remote working a possibility and today’s professionals have more control on where and when they work than any generation before. But is there a downside to this? Is this 24/7 connectivity eating into our personal time? 

More and more employees are demanding flexible working from their employers. So what exactly does it entail?

According to the British government’s definition, flexible working is a variation of your working pattern which might involve: 

  • Job sharing
  • Working from home
  • Part-time hours
  • Compressed hours
  • Flexitime
  • Annualized hours
  • Staggered hours

Depending on the employer, it might also represent a permanent variation to the terms of employment (the contract), and as such have no automatic return to the previous terms ( The Guardian – know your rights). 

Benefits of flexible working 

In a study published on by Fractl, flexibility is widely regarded as one of the major sources of employee satisfaction and one of the major factors when considering a new job.

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Specifically, they observe that:

Flexible working benefits employees in the following ways:

  • An improved work-life balance
  • Guilt-free time to recharge
  • A feeling of being trusted by their employer

Flexible working rewards employers with the following:

  • Happier, more engaged, and more loyal employees
  • Reduced administrative costs
  • No vacation liability for the company. 

Clearly not all the advantages apply in all circumstances but the potential benefits for both employees and employers are evident. 

Sarah Jackson, Chief Executive of Working Families, and Dr Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, express support for and approval of flexible working, while at the same time striking a note of caution. They are representative of widespread support for the practice.

Why Employees with Flexible Work Schedules Perform Better

The consensus, then, is that flexible working is a great mutual benefit.

Employers can benefit from happier and more productive workers and employees are sure to appreciate the human-centered approach that allows them to better manage their work-life balance.

However, the note of caution comes from some disadvantages which are beginning to manifest themselves. 

Side effects of flexible working 

One of the curious effects of flexible working, particularly working from home is that the concept of being late for work is no longer relevant.

Work is done at the agreed time, and even if the working hours consist of conventional office hours, most remote workers log on early and log off late. A clear productivity bonus.

But is that where it stops? Are being logged off and being disconnected synonymous?

Are the expectations the same of office-based and home-based workers? Worryingly the answer appears to be yes, but not quite in the way one might expect.

It is a curious and growing phenomenon that people are now more inclined to check and respond to messages while on holiday. Reasons, explanations and justifications vary.

Some argue that being up-to-date with work while on holiday is in itself relaxing and a form of self-care to prevent an inbox build up when you return to the office. Others accept the practice but recommend moderation

There are even those who blame the availability of the technology for the habit which may even be seen as an addiction. And again those who consider it between a requirement and a necessary evil

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Others consider holidays to be an opportunity to completely disconnect. Some travel companies now offer “digital detox” holidays where visitors can escape to the wilderness and unwind. 

But holidays are an extreme example of the phenomenon, what about everyday working life?

“Always on” 

Some years ago HRM guide, an independent online publisher on Human Resources management, found that in replying to emails and answering phone calls at home the average UK employee was putting in an extra three weeks a year in overtime. 

Their findings in brief were:

  • 93% of respondents continued working after leaving the office
  • They averaged three hours and 31 minutes each week doing this
  • That is the equivalent of 23 extra working days a year

Another more recent study by the American based Academy of Management drew similar conclusions, finding that workers spent an average of eight hours per week dealing with email outside of normal working hours.

And similarly, Unison, the UK public services union published an assessment of home working which highlights the “Danger of over-work or working unsocial hours”.

The problem of de facto disconnection, in any sense, is now being recognized.

Consider the“right to disconnect” legislation in France implemented in 2017. Before dismissing this as a French quirk, reflect also that the same concept is being mooted in the USA, where workers are famed for working long hours and for not taking all of their holiday allocation which is notably shorter than the European average. 

Clear policies are key 

There are some questions to be asked regarding flexible working and in particular the use of email:

  • Do you send messages outside normal working hours? 
  • Do you receive messages outside normal working hours?
  • What do you do about them?
  • What is the expectation?
  • If there is no response to email do you resort to SMS?
  • Do you or the company, in fact, offer a 24-hour service?

The Business News Daily, for example, consider the practice harmful citing the evidence of the aforementioned Academy of Management study in their argument.

Just because a worker is active on email does not mean that they can resolve a problem, nor, for that matter, does it mean that they are able to interact with a third party.

Why Employees with Flexible Work Schedules Perform Better

Flexible working is still a minority occupation so the probability of successful external communication is low. And if the communication requires an internal response, is that not a way of compounding the problem?

Workers who are permanently connected are under pressure and frequently weary. Flexible working is, as mentioned, a two-way street. Is it really in the company’s interest to be in constant touch? Is the constant barrage of email and messages productive, destructive or indicative of a lack of self-confidence and trust on the part of management itself?

HR professionals must make sure that clear flexible working policies are in place so that expectations are transparent and employees can strike the right balance between working productively and taking sufficient time to switch off.