Flexible Work - every workers dream but how is it working in practice? May 2019

Over the last week, I have been thinking a lot about flexible work and how lucky I am to be self employed and able to enjoy the benefit of flexible hours.  In the career development part of my private practice, I see many clients who are seeking opportunities to work flexibly.  Sometimes this is because of their child caring responsibilities, but also students who are completing their studies or mature workers who have returned to study to upgrade their skills or qualifications are expressing a preference for flexible working conditions.  Many applicants dread bringing up the possibility of flexible hours for fear they will be regarded as difficult or not as committed to the job as other applicants.  Although in recent years, we have seen an increase in employers (particularly larger companies and agencies in the government sector)  being prepared to offer more flexibility in the workplace, many workers find this is still a challenge to find and even when it is offered, there are issues about exercising it in practice.  What I have observed is some of my clients reporting that although they have been granted flexible hours, they don't feel fully comfortable utilising this to the degree they would like as it appears to be regarded as a less valuable type of employment status.  It is almost like some employers feel they are obligated to offer this option, but do so somewhat reluctantly and don't make it easy for people to utilise it.   In fact many employers do not mention it as an option at interviews until the applicant raises it.   Flexible work can be a great advantage to employers and employees when it is implemented well. 

In our 24/7 society, many employers have introduced flexible hours as a means of servicing the constant demand for services.  Whilst this has benefited some members of the workforce, it has often led to under employment, particularly in the service industry, where many workers struggle to get enough hours and are expected to work inhospitable rosters over weekends, public holidays and late night work.  The payment of overtime or penalty rates often does not make up for the detrimental impact on their social and family time and can be harmful to their health and wellbeing.  Flexibility works best when it is entered into freely by both parties with a genuine belief in its benefits and a commitment to making it fair and effective.

In the Annual Workplace Flexibility Report 2019 prepared by FlexCareers, they surveyed 1600 people comprising HR decision makers, employees and jobseekers from 27 industries to find out how flexibility was being used in workplaces and how it was working in practice.  Flexibility was defined as referring to the way companies change the time, location and manner of working.  This may involve part time work, job share arrangements, working remotely, working from home and varying hours from part days, weekends or evening work.  FlexCareers works with jobseekers and employers to encourage flexible work opportunities and promote its benefits.

The findings of the survey revealed that the most common types of flexibility were with regard to start and finish times, ad hoc hours and working from remote locations.  64% of respondents said that their employers offered some type of flexibility, but nearly 70% of people said they did not have enough flexibility.

We know that flexibility is essential for many mothers who wish to work, but it is not just mothers who seek to enjoy the benefits of flexible hours.  97% of those surveyed said they needed, wanted or wished to use flexibility where it was offered.  In fact, when jobseekers were asked what factors they considered when applying for work, the top ranked response was flexible work. The reasons for the popularity of flexible work apart from mothers, includes people who are studying, those with disability or health issues or older workers who are not ready to retire but prefer to combine some paid work with voluntary activities or leisure pursuits.

Over 90% of people surveyed believed they were more productive when able to work flexibly.  Flexibility is crucial for retention with 97% of women and a surprising 81% of men reporting that "flexibility would encourage them to stay longer with a current employer".  The reasons for favouring flexibility varied between the genders, with women identifying "staying on top of life admin." and child care as the key factors, while men ranked work life balance and looking after their mental health as their top two reasons.

However, the study found there were some impediments to employees taking advantage of the flexibility already on offer in some companies due to what was perceived as negative perceptions of other employees and inconsistent implementation of company policies and processes.  People also commented that use of flexibility sometimes resulted in discrimination such as negative comments or attitudes from colleagues, feelings of being "out of the loop" and missed opportunities for promotion.  60% of women surveyed commented that working flexibly would have a detrimental impact on career progression and promotion and 52% of men also expressed this view.

While the results of this latest survey show that more workers than ever before are embracing flexible work as a preference and some companies have implemented this very successfully, there is much yet to be done before this type of employment is accepted as the norm and not some inconvenient HR policy which needs to be introduced.  Training of managers on how to make the most out of flexible hours and strategies to overcome potential difficulties related to their implementation will assist with breaking down some of the current barriers to successful implementation.  Flexible working hours has enormous benefits to employees and employers alike.  It has been shown to improve retention which saves on recruitment and training costs, it is beneficial to workers' health and wellbeing, improves morale and it increases productivity when workers are fresher and more motivated as a result of enjoying a better work life balance.

With an aging population, it would appear that flexibility will only incease as employers realise that there is a wealth of talent which is being overlooked and under utilised and that to offer more flexibility to all workers makes good business sense.  As the world of work continues to change in ways which we can't even hope to imagine in the future, people who are engaged in what work remains open to human beings will no doubt continue to want more flexibility in their lives.  Perhaps we will be working alongside robots or remotely supervising their activities and tasks.  Who knows.  What is almost certain, the way we work will be very different, but for now the focus should be on how to find greater satisfaction and meaning in the work that we currently do and to advocate for workplace policies and practices which better meet our needs as a workforce and enhance our health and wellbeing.


© Dawn Vincent