Flexible Working – the work-life balance solution of choice?

By Almuth McDowall (a.mcdowall@bbk.ac.uk), June 2016:

In April 2016, the BBC featured an article on work-life balance and flexible working citing a number of examples where organisations measure job performance by output and not by time spent at our desks. Where such flexibility is implemented and embraced, employees can effectively self-regulate and set their own working hours as well as deciding where they work. Is this the future of work as we know it?

Well, yes and no, and we certainly should take heed from the existing evidence base. Although flexible working is often seen as a work-life balance solution of choice, the evidence for its benefits is rather sobering at present. There is little evidence for a business case [1] and flexible working tends to only ‘work’ when people can choose their own solutions, otherwise their health may be negatively affected [2]. So we need to have a say in the solution we create or sign up for.

Flexible working, particularly when people are not office-based, also relies on trust and good will, as it’s harder, and some would argue completely unnecessary, to monitor what everyone is doing. But there are down sides to such flexibility which is the lack of ‘switching off’ opportunities. The BBC article highlights that there is often a price to pay. For instance, you may be able to go on holiday at short notice, but also be expected to ensure that everything is ‘ticking over’ when you are away. This implies of course that there is sufficient resource on the ground to cover absence; this is comparatively easier in larger organisations where a short term handover can be facilitated, but much harder in Small to Medium Enterprises where there is not the ‘slack’ in the system to enable such flexibility.

Another issue which deserves attention is the actual nature of the work. Some jobs are portable, but also have more confined structures, and actual deliverables. Other jobs are mainly knowledge-based, or indeed require a great deal of interaction with others making it much easier to say ‘job done’ and switch off and enjoy time away from work.

So can flexible working work? There is certainly no evidence that a 9-5 day is good for all of us, and neither is regularly working overtime. But as so often, the answer is probably ‘it depends’. Some of us will always be happier with a regular, predictable job where we can close a real and not virtual office door and go home. There is nothing wrong with that. Some of us are happier negotiating our own job structure and way of working, as long as we deliver the goods. There is nothing wrong with that either. Some of us are somewhere in between, requiring lots of flexibility at certain times, and occasionally more structure. There is also nothing wrong with that! It is important that we have a ‘deal’ which suits us, and brings the best out in us, but also that we negotiate with those around us, as modern workplaces need effective communication, collaboration and a sense of purpose.

[1] De Menezes, L. M., & Kelliher, C. (2011). Flexible working and performance: A systematic review of the evidence for a business case. International Journal of Management Reviews, 13(4), 452-474.

[2] Joyce, K., Pabayo, R., Critchley, J. A., & Bambra, C. (2010). Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2.

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