With the rise and rise of smartphones, cloud computing, google docs, and HR software (to name but a few) remote and flexible work is becoming increasingly commonplace. By 2020 it’s predicted that at least half the workforce will work remotely, and whilst it can certainly improve work-life balance, by eliminating commuter time for example, as with anything, there are drawbacks as well.
Some of the best ideas for collaboration arise from chance encounters in the office; being allowed the autonomy to work any hours, from anywhere, can even lead some individuals to overwork themselves; and those who work remotely all the time can become isolated which isn’t good for anyone. So where does this leave a manager? Being aware of the pros and cons of flexible working will help you to avoid its pitfalls and make it work for everyone.
What is flexible working?
By ‘flexible working arrangements’ we mean employees who, to some extent, work in different locations or non-traditional working hours. Including:
- flexitime: where employees can vary their start and finish times provided a certain number of hours are worked. The number of hours may be set weekly or monthly and core working hours, such as 10.00am to 4.00pm may be set;
- part-time or reduced hours: where the employee works fewer hours than a full-time worker who usually works 35 hours or more a week;
- term-time working: where an employee only works during school term time. This means working around 13 weeks less per year;
- homeworking or remote working: where the employee works from home or another location away from the central office one or more days per week;
- job sharing: where two employees share the work of one full time job;
- compressed hours: where employees work a full week’s worth of hours in fewer days (e.g., five days worked over four);
- family-leave programmes: where employees get paid or unpaid leave to attend to personal or family responsibilities usually for a temporary period.
The proven benefits of flexible working
ACAS research says:
- Flexible workers actively ‘craft’ their work environments to improve their own efficiency
- Managers in ACAS interviews felt that flexible workers were more organised and productive.
- Homeworkers are more efficient than office workers due to fewer distractions (but that they can also experience barriers to greater productivity, such as problems with communications and team coordination).
- Remote workers demonstrate greater commitment and a willingness to ‘give back’ to the organisation.
- Flexible working benefits employees due to a reduction in occupational stress.
While these points mean positive benefits for teams and organisations in terms of increased productivity, there are potential negative effects for the individual. These are associated with the feeling that they must give more back in return for being granted the opportunity to work flexibly; this is called “work intensification” and can be counter-productive by increasing self-imposed stress and pressure.
A few more pros…
You’ll attract talented employees from a larger pool. Perhaps finding someone who’s perfect for the job but doesn’t live close by, or someone who simply cannot work office hours.
Better staff retention (less staff turnover and an improved bottom line) as staff feel trusted and empowered to manage their own workload and can better juggle their work and family responsibilities.
The creation of a flexible and collaborative culture based on your willingness to take the first step towards accommodating the varying needs of your team.
The cons of flexible working:
- Individuals may over work themselves, increasing their stress levels and negatively impacting productivity over time.
- Homeworkers may experience feelings of isolation which may also contribute to increased stress (linked to decreased productivity).
- It’s harder to build and instill company culture and values (and good old team spirit) when you’ve got people scattered all over the place.
- Collaborative work and meetings may prove harder to manage.
The challenges of flexible work arrangements include:
Managing performance fairly across full-time and part-time employees.
Providing access to development and promotion opportunities to employees working flexibly.
How to make it work
Overall ACAS research supports the positive benefits, team effectiveness and productivity if flexible working is well managed.
- Communication reigns supreme! As always, good solid, clear communications are key to making it work. Set boundaries, manage expectations, encourage lots of emailing/ skyping, talking on the phone to keep all channels of communications open.
- Make sure your team is a team. Team activities such as team lunches, monthly drinks, team building activities etc can help to maintain a sense of being a team even if they aren’t all physically in the same place. Providing opportunities for your people to get to know each other outside of a work environment will allow them to work better and play to each other’s strengths when working.
- Be consistent and fair. Everyone’s request to work flexibly must be considered individually but using consistent principles, otherwise you risk discontent in the ranks. Fairness and consistency must also apply to the way that people are managed overall whether they’re in the office or at home.
- Be flexible with flexibility. This goes both ways, whilst it’s great to have formal arrangements for remote and flexible working, it’s also necessary for both parties to be flexible to the needs of the business.
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