Flexible working needs to be done properly, with an emphasis on job redesign. The process will benefit both employee and employer.
A report out last week adds its voice to warnings about ‘false flex’ – the idea that employers allow flexible working, for instance, part-time hours without actually altering jobs so that the work can be done in reduced hours; hybrid working which doesn’t adapt to the realities of remote working and just expects remote workers to do their face to face job at home; or flexi time which equates to being ‘always on’ with no sense of work life balance.
This is nothing new. We’ve had years and years and years of [mainly women] workers going part time and finding themselves doing a full-time job with part-time pay or people working from home who are overlooked for promotion or project work they would be ideally suited to because the workplace doesn’t see them or doubts that homeworking is real working and many people have spoken about the work life merge where everything blurs. For some, the latter is their preferred way of managing things, but others yearn for a distinct marker between work and family life. That’s not to mention insecure flexible working which only works one way – the employer’s.
For years and year, people have been talking about the importance of job redesign – of employers and managers sitting down before they agree a flexible working request and really thinking through how the job can be done in a flexible way. If the request is for part-time hours, for instance, are there things that could be taken off the job description, given to others [perhaps more junior people, allowing them to expand their skills] or given to a new person. Could it be done as a job share, not only covering the role itself, but allowing the employer to benefit from the different skills of two people [and ensuring there is always cover to boot]?
Job redesign is not simply a favour to the employee in question. It offers employers time to rethink, particularly at a time of rapid changes to jobs in the light of technology advances and the like. It plays to the strengths of the employee which can only be good for the employer. Who benefits from burnt out, disillusioned employees? Long term, always on is not sustainable and the answer is not more insecure work because that only increases anxiety – and, as we know, mental health is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in the workplace and has been linked to productivity issues.
The last year has shown employers that, for instance, people can be just as productive – or more so – when they work remotely. There are concerns that some of that productivity increase is due to people working longer hours during the pandemic. That is surely not what we should be aiming for. An exhausted workforce does not keep up productivity levels for long. The pandemic has also shown that remote workers can be trusted in the main to do their job. But long term they need the right environment – that means a different style of management based on output rather than presenteeism. It means managers investigating ways to ensure hybrid or remote workers are included and seen as equal members of the team.
I asked an employer recently if they were going to invest in meeting rooms with screens [even one meeting room with a screen] so people could connect remotely. They said it was probably too expensive. But is it? How much could employers save on energy bills [with smart office management systems], reduced office space, travel expenses, etc, by encouraging hybrid or remote working? Surely the negativity is more about mindset than actually looking at the sums. We need to get beyond that. Tinkering at the edges of an inevitably changing work culture means the true benefits will not be felt either by employee or employer.