Flexible working conditions attract staff seeking a healthier work-life balance and can boost productivity, but there are concerns that employers need to address.
Trying to describe where multinational web-development firm Automattic is based, or even headquartered, is an impossible task. The firm has 930 staff in 70 countries but doesn't have a single office. It ought to be a recipe for confusion, but somehow it seems to work.
According to 2019 research by PowWowNow, 75 per cent of workers favour jobs that offer flexibility, up from 70 per cent in 2017. Ius Laboris's forces for change 2020 survey finds that 86 per cent of people regard flexible working as a fundamental or significant consideration when applying for a role.
Being able to work from home or other locations can help individuals balance their work and personal lives, as well as reducing the stress – and expense – of commuting.
But for employers, too, there is evidence of positive benefits. Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom persuaded James Liang, co-founder of Ctrip – China's largest travel agency with 16,000 employees – to divide 500 of its long-commute staff into two groups: a control group that continued working at HQ and a group that worked from home.
The near two-year study showed astounding productivity among the telecommuters who had a private workroom at home – equivalent to a full day's work each week. This seems to have been because they were not late arriving at the office, had fewer distractions and could concentrate better. Not only did Ctrip save almost USD 2,000 per employee on rent by reducing office space, attrition among flexible workers was 50 per cent less than those in the office. Home workers also took fewer sick days.
But while some firms are benefiting from flexible working, others have been slower to adapt. Ius Laboris's study suggests just 19 per cent of companies fully offer the option, suggesting it is either seen as too difficult or that there are genuine concerns around how it works in practice.
Jason Fowler, HR director at Fujitsu UK & Ireland, says it can be challenging to ensure that those working remotely feel a shared sense of purpose and association if they are not present in an office, or if teams are split across multiple locations. "Flexible working is a major benefit for individuals," he says. "However, care needs to be taken so it avoids becoming inflexible, with individuals rarely or never attending the office and incurring the negative personal consequences of disengagement and impaired development."
There are also concerns over the impact on team morale and vital contacts. Then Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer famously tried to roll back remote working initiatives on the grounds of losing vital "water-cooler moments", while in 2017 IBM moved to force its marketing department to work from one of six locations, though the idea caused uproar among its team of remote workers.
A related concern is the ability for people, particularly younger workers, to develop if large proportions of their team or managers are working elsewhere. US software firm Auth0 operates with an entirely remote workforce, but uses its offices in Washington, London, Sydney, Buenos Aires and Tokyo as locations for training, brainstorming and bonding. "It's hard to build relationships online, let alone learn from others and grow your career," says Melinda Starbird, the company's VP of people and employee experience. "No matter how good your remote work culture is, there is no substitute for face-to- face interaction."
Nor will flexible working suit everyone. Those working remotely can face long hours on their own. They also might feel under pressure to prove they are working, including responding to emails outside of working hours.
"Giving employees flexibility sounds appealing," says John Hackston, head of thought leadership at global workplace psychology firm The Myers-Briggs Company. "But some are better equipped to cope than others. Many will not be able to switch off and this can lead to a burnout culture. Our own recent research finds 31 per cent of flexible workers said bosses expect them to check emails in the evenings or at weekends. If not kept in check, this has negative repercussions on the efficiency of organisations and the wellbeing of staff."
Addressing at-work inflexibilities is, of course, harder than just letting someone work from home. It could comprise everything from improving poor office design – for example, lack of quiet rooms or hot-desking leaving people feeling disconnected – through to reshaping how teams are organised.
It's hard to build relationships online, let alone learn from others and grow your career
In some countries, though, doing even this is challenging. In France, for example, 95 per cent of staff are covered by collective bargaining.
In Germany, work councils might forbid remote-working technology if it breached an employee's privacy.
It's important that any organisation offering flexible working – in all its forms – effectively communicates policies to all employees, and doesn't contravene any laws. But Sarah Baumann, managing director of VaynerMedia London – part of the global VaynerMedia company – believes it's often a case of allowing common sense to prevail. "If we don't engender a sense of responsibility, trust and a desire to do the job, whenever and wherever people are, then we are to blame," she says. "I suspect flexible working arrangements will become the norm quicker than we can ever imagine."
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