Making flexible working work better

Remote working can intensify work and bring longer hours and cause greater blurring between work and family life, according to new research.

Working at home with flexible working

 

The report, Work autonomy, flexibility and work-life balance, says that, although flexible working is very popular, it is not a panacea on its own. Although it mostly increases work life balance and job satisfaction, that impact is not as much as anticipated and is less important than that, for example, a supportive manager.

The type of flexible working and work context matters, it says. Senior managers and those in more demanding jobs, for example, were more likely to see the lines between work and life blurring.

The report, written by Dr Heejung Chung from the University of Kent, was launched at a conference in London this week. It found that remote workers are more likely than others to worry about work when they are not at work and more likely to work in their free time. They also do more overtime.

She speculated that this could be in part due to remote workers feeling they have to compensate for the “favour” of working from home and because of the stigma associated with flexible working – a stigma which is putting men off doing it.

On the other hand, she said flexible working reduces the likelihood of women dropping out of work. Dr Chung added that more conflict between work and life did not necessarily mean remote workers had less job satisfaction. Part-time workers might have more time for home, but may feel that they were sacrificing progression at work, for instance, she said.

Other findings of the research project included

  1. Flexible working can pay off for men in top jobs [in terms of promotion and salary], but the same did not seem to be true for women possibly because women are viewed to want flexible working for family reasons while men were more likely to be seen as wanting it for career progression reasons
  2. Higher skilled workers are still more likely to get flexible working and being a parent makes little difference
  3. Flexible working is good for retention of women after childbirth
  4. Female-dominated workplaces are less likely to allow flexi time and greater control over when and where employees work than mixed or male-dominated workplaces
  5. Flexi time can help to narrow the gender pay gap.

The report calls for:

  • A campaign against the stigma associated with flexible working and an emphasis on research that shows that, for example, remote workers are more likely to work harder
  • The right to request flexible working needs to be strengthened so all workers can have access and employment tribunal fees reduced
  • More work is needed to encourage men to do flexible working. Otherwise there is a danger of the gender hierarchy widening
  • Flexible working needs to be the norm from day one and work life balance needs to be openly discussed by managers and workers. Managers also need to role model flexible working
  • There needs to be work life balance reporting or certification and that should serve as a criteria for winning government tenders
  • Greater rights for home workers
  • Flexible working needs to be seen in the wider work context, alongside the role of technology, growing intensification of work and other trends
  • The Government needs to prepare a white paper on the future of work.

Happiness at work

Other speakers at the conference responded to the report. Lonnie Golden, professor of Economics and Labour Studies at Penn State University, said it was not enough just to measure work life balance.

Happiness and job satisfaction were important and were related to greater autonomy over work. Too many people, such as shift workers, had no control over their hours.

Tackling that negative type of flexibility which gave too much control to employers needed to be a priority.

Matthew Creagh, policy officer from the TUC, said unions were looking to provide safeguards around workloads and to include fair job design as part of collective bargaining.

He added that the TUC was also campaigning for zero hours workers to be given employee rights and for a rise in rates for statutory payments like maternity pay.

Flexible work such as flexi hours or home working reduced the likelihood of women reducing their hours, meaning good quality flexible working could play an important role in reducing the gender pay gap.

The conference included three roundtables on making flexible working work for workers and companies, enabling better access to flexible working and the future of work.

In the first, Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisational Studies at Cranfield Business School, said that for flexible working to become normalised implementation was key.

That meant focusing on issues such as management by output rather than presenteeism and unpicking the idea that standard working arrangements are the gold standard.

She said there were a lot of changes happening in the world of work. People were working multiple jobs and in different patterns. Some were considering work life balance less as something that they achieve on a daily or weekly basis and more as something they strive for on an annual basis.

“We are at a turning point. We need to think differently about some of these issues to reflect the changes that are happening in society,” she said.

An audience member suggested that managing work life balance should be seen as a key competency for workers. Professor Kelliher said that team support was also important.

Training managers and strengthening flexible working legislation

Other issues that came up included the importance of training for managers. One suggestion was for appraisals of managers to take the happiness of their workers into account. That would enable managers to hold conversations about work life balance and job satisfaction.

Other speakers commented on themes

Jennifer Swanberg, Professor of Social Work at the University of Maryland, suggested employers consider piloting different ways of working in different parts of their organisation alongside training for managers.

Jonathan Swan, Policy and Research Officer at Working Families, spoke of a project to help SMEs in South Wales in the caring, cleaning and catering sectors move to more flexible ways of working and said it was clear that a one size fits all approach did not work.

Gillian Nissim, founder of Workingmums.co.uk, spoke about statistics showing how significant numbers of women were having flexible working turned down and how legislation needed to be strengthened and mentioned how some employers were normalising flexible working, through agile hiring practices and the introduction of sponsors for women who might lack visibility because they worked flexibly.

Laura Den Dulk, Associate Professor from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, said that, although flexible working was normalised in the Netherlands and most requests were granted, it was still generally women who requested it.

Yvonne Lott, Senior Research at Hans Boeckler Stiftung, said employers in Germany were proposing a weekly limit on hours rather than a daily one and weakening the 11-hour break between work days. They were also discussing looking at different ways of working for different life phases and companies were being invited to pilot new forms of flexible working.

A member of the audience suggested flexible working legislation should be significantly strengthened, with flexible working becoming a right and employers having to prove that it doesn’t work rather than the onus being on individuals to make a business case.

Jon Messenger, Lead for Working Conditions at the International Labour Organisation, said the business benefits of telework were clear and that partial homeworking ensured people had the best of both worlds, avoiding problems of isolation faced by regular homeworkers.



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