Like the world of fashion, innovative work methods, HR trends and management interventions are subject to trends; hip and happening for a time, before quickly falling out of style. However, one particular hype appears to have made a lasting impression; flexible working.
What does flexible working mean? For decades, a lot of work in industrialised countries happened in office environments between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM. However, working outside office walls and hours is becoming increasingly popular. The employment conditions of around half (Possenriede and Plantenga, 2014) of the Dutch workforce includes some form of flexible working arrangement.
This means their supervisor allows them a degree of freedom to choose the time, location and duration of their work. The employee’s personal situation is taken into account. If they live far away from the office, for example, it will save them a lot of travel time if they can work at home part or all of the week. This extra time can be turned into increased productivity and efficiency.
Work-life balance Employees who can work flexibly report an increase in their job satisfaction as a result (Possenriede and Plantenga, 2014). This is because their work and private life (e.g. caring for children) are easier to combine.
Research conducted by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women (CEW) in 2011 revealed that women believe that creating work models in which both men and women are supported in their familial responsibilities is a major factor in getting more women in high-ranking positions. Bain & CEW (2015) showed that women hold less than 15% of the executive positions, despite more women graduating from universities than men.
The researchers suggested that many women still leave the employment market around the age of thirty to focus on their families and flexible employment could be the answer. A double-income family in which both partners have flexible employment and contribute equally to the care for their children and parents would allow the woman to continue her career development.
What are the main issues related to flexible working for managers and employees? Spending less time in the office is often considered taboo, despite that it is frequently linked to increased job satisfaction and productivity. The employee’s invisibility feels uncomfortable and creates a fear that they could be slacking off.
Some of this suspicion is the result of not knowing how to manage flexible employees. It is common for both managers and employees to struggle with flexible working practices but any issues are easily resolved through open discussion and training. Employees who are able to work flexibly report an increase in job satisfaction as a result.
The biggest problem appears to be the blurring of the lines between the employee’s personal and professional life. If they work at home they need to learn how to deal with those two worlds coexisting. Without proper adjustment in mentality working in an office with clear start and end times is easier to handle than working in a manner that is independent of time and place. Will the employee be able to create the right conditions to perform as needed?
An office environment has many qualities that facilitates work that the average living room does not. Just think of the lighting conditions, the chair, desk and monitor settings. Are there too many or not enough stimuli at home to work effectively? Is it possible to replace the healthy break that a colleague stopping by for a chat brings? Do you turn on music to cheer yourself up if you are struggling? Can you set your household chores aside to focus on work?
You can train employees in the skills needed to get into the right flow when they aren’t in the office. It is advisable to avoid overwhelming employees with flexible work without first training them how to create a pleasant work environment at home. Experimenting with flexible working, discussing everyone’s experiences and slowly shifting the ratio so that more of the week is spent working flexibly are all good ways of introducing the concept to your colleagues. It sounds simple, yet these methods are still rarely adopted in practice.
Furthermore, it is the employer’s responsibility to offer employees the equipment and software they need to do their work effectively in external locations. What about an alternative workplace inspection?
A common pitfall associated with flexible working is that the focus is placed entirely on results, performance or end results. This can lead to a lot of stress. By working in short cycles (scrumming), a manager can offer process-based support and supervision and take some of the pressure off employees. It is highly advisable to communicate throughout the day to make the work process, with all its barriers, open for discussion.
Some fashion hypes withstand the test of time. Take jeans, for example. Since their invention, they have always been in style. The key to their success is the fact that they come in all shapes and sizes, so there is a perfect pair for everyone.
The key to long-term success with flexible working appears to be to design the right jeans, i.e. flexible arrangement, per person, per situation and per position. The perfect “fit” is created by offering the right ergonomic tools for each flexible arrangement. When employers are aware of and account for their employees’ individual situations and preferences, they can offer them the right equipment and software. When an employee works in an ergonomically responsible manner at home or in an alternative location and is coached to take breaks and alternate between standing up and sitting down, they will be able to perform with optimal focus and in a responsible manner during their flexible working hours.
Finding the right flexible and ergonomic fit could result in a level playing field in which the gender gap for executive positions is bridged and more diverse leadership teams can be created in the future. On top of that, employee job satisfaction will increase and families benefit from an optimal balance between work and private life. With all these advantages and practical ways to avoid pitfalls, we should hope that flexible working will not turn out to be a flash in the pan, but rather the jeans of the management world.