Report highlights how to get the best out of flexible working

Flexible working needs to be properly managed so that individuals and organisations can enjoy its benefits while avoiding some of the pitfalls such as a tendency to undervalue and underpromote flexible workers, according to a new Acas report.

The report, Flexibility in the workplace, by Professor Sharon Clarke and Dr Lynn Holdsworth from the University of Manchester, found both ‘hidden benefits’ and ‘hidden penalties’ of flexible working. On the positive side,
it says flexible working has the potential for improved organisational performance, due to employees working at their peak hours of productivity or demonstrating citizenship behaviours and increased commitment. However, on the negative side, the tendency to under-value flexible workers, or perceive them as lacking in ambition, means organisations can miss out on having talented and committed individuals in their senior management teams because they work flexibly.

The researchers also found that despite organisations fearing widespread roll-out of flexible working may result in reduced productivity for both individuals and teams, the opposite could be the case. Managers told them they felt that flexible workers were more organised and productive. They added that their research shows that homeworkers are more efficient than office workers due to fewer distractions, but added that they also experience barriers to greater productivity, such as problems with communications and team coordination. They say efficiencies introduced by flexible workers also benefit their team’s productivity leading to improved overall team effectiveness.

The researchers also found employees who have been allowed to work flexibly tend to demonstrate greater commitment and a willingness to ‘give back’ to the organisation, eg, through working overtime, changing work hours, taking work home, etc. It highlights that, while this can help organisations, it can lead to greater work intensification for the flexible workers, which could increase occupational stress.

Homeworkers in particular could experience more stress, the researchers said, from work intensification, communication problems with colleagues and a lack of support. This could be offset by a greater sense of control over when and where they work.

The researchers also found managers were often reluctant to grant flexible working for employees as they feared that teams with flexible workers would be more difficult to manage. Managers expected flexible workers in their team to be ‘flexible with flexibility’. Good management was essential.  They state: “Managers need to ensure fairness and
consistency in the implementation of flexible working arrangements, and avoid ad hoc arrangements, to avoid a negative impact on team morale. They need to build trust and confidence in their teams.”

The researchers say formal policies for flexible work can be effective if used consistently across the organisation. They found that inconsistencies in the application of flexible working policy could lead to perceptions of unfairness, and disrupt working relationships. They also found that those working flexibly felt that more senior roles might not be open to them in the future as flexible workers.

To boost the benefits of flexible working for organisations and individuals, the report makes several recommendations on best practice for managers. They include ensuring clear communications, setting boundaries and managing expectations; making formalised arrangements, but ensuring both parties are willing to be flexible; implementing consistent practices; consider each request on its merits; and encouraging managers to work flexibly so they can act as role models.

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