There are hidden benefits and drawbacks to flexible working arrangements, new research from employment adviser Acas finds. Adrian Wakeling, senior policy adviser, looks at the key messages for employers.
In many workplace settings, it is hard to distinguish idle chit-chat from meaningful dialogue. We know how it goes – meetings are where everyone has their say, but many of the best ideas and exchanges happen in the corridor just afterwards.
So where does this leave the flexible worker who is more likely to be dialling into the meeting and missing out on chance encounters at the tea point?
As a homeworker who has also worked flexibly for many years, I know it can be a challenge.
New Acas research on flexible working arrangements – broadly, giving people some choice over where and for how long they do their jobs – has plenty to say about the hidden benefits and hidden penalties of alternative ways of working. Here are some highlights from the research:
More on flexible working
- Flexible working can reduce work-life conflict, with less commute time for example. Equally it can also blur the work and home divide and for some lead to work intensification. This may be fuelled by individuals feeling the need to pay back to a company for accommodating their needs.
- The idea of flexible working can be more appealing for individuals than the reality. Home working can lead to feelings of isolation, particularly if communication with colleagues is poor. The benefits of allowing people to focus at home need to be coupled with a good support network.
- Managers may expect staff to be ‘flexible with flexibility’ to deliver their work on time. The evidence suggests that teams working collaboratively can help in meeting shared objectives.
- Requests for flexible working must be handled fairly and staff managed properly for everyone to buy into the different work patterns. This applies within and between teams.
- Perceptions of flexibility are important, and evidence suggests that this may contribute as much to engagement and performance, as actual take up of arrangements. Offering some flexibility can signal that employees are valued.
Overall, the truth about flexible working arrangements seems to lie in the nuances of individual circumstances, the prevailing organisational culture and the given context.
Some of the quotes from employers and employees in the new study really highlight the ‘hidden benefits/penalties’ motif of working flexibly. For example, one employee said that when you are working from home “you can just sit in your bubble and no one can disturb you”.
This ‘bubble’ often leads to more focus but, as one team manager said: “There are a lot of communication barriers that exist when you are not face-to-face”.
The idea of being ‘flexible with flexibility’ is really about old fashioned give and take. I have known a lot of people who, though technically working part-time, in reality work far more hours in order to be ‘flexible’ in this way.
But, likewise, there will always be colleagues who feel that flexible workers put themselves, and their families, before the job. As another manager commented: “I am happy that they leave at four o’clock, but that is on the understanding that if something urgent is happening they would actually stay.”
Earlier Acas research on the expectations and experiences of older workers – those over 55 – highlighted widespread stereotyping of different age groups.
Typically this would be along the lines that ‘most older workers are winding down towards retirement’ and most younger workers ‘want more personal development and training’.
Similar stereotyping clearly occurs with those working flexibly. Flexible workers are prone to be seen as less ambitious or career-focused than their peers because they work reduced hours. Earlier Acas research on homeworking also found that it is hard to shift the notion that ‘face time’ is the most critical driver of progression (whether you are working productively or not).
People often ask me ‘is it difficult working at home so much?’ and my honest answer is that it has the same balance of benefits and penalties as any ‘standard working pattern’.
There is more chance to focus, but also more opportunity to feel isolated; more sense of autonomy, but less joint working; less time at the communal tea point, but more chance to get your washing off the line before it rains.