How to find the balance between flexible working and “always on”

Being able to log on any time, anywhere, could lead to workers feeling unable to switch off

Research has shown that many workers value flexible working over a pay rise. Sarah Thompson asks how can employers ensure that being able to log on from anywhere does not lead to people never turning off?

With the ever-increasing rise in portable and wearable technology, the ability to work wherever and whenever is the new norm.

Research has shown that many workers value flexible working above a pay rise, so enabling and encouraging these working arrangements could even result in cost savings in the form of staff salaries and business overheads.

Not only that, flexible working helps employees create a better work-life balance and reduce travel time, which in turn can create higher employee engagement and retention.

There is now, more than ever, a need for employers to adopt well-designed flexible and agile working arrangements to take advantage of these new ways of working.

Right to request

All employees with at least 26 weeks’ employment with the same employer have the statutory right to request flexible working.

The employer must then give the request proper consideration, and can only decline it for a prescribed reason and must, generally speaking, inform the employee of its decision within three months.

Flexible working encompasses many different ways of working from part-time hours, job sharing and working from home to mobile working, compressed hours and flexi-time.

It also plays a crucial role in closing the gender pay gap. According to the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee’s gender pay gap report: “flexible working for all lies at the heart of addressing the gender pay gap”.

The report found that women are paid on average 19.2% less than their male counterparts, driven in part by a lack of flexible working opportunities and a high proportion of women working part-time compared with men (41% compared with 12%).

The report notes: “A large part of the gender pay gap is down to women’s concentration in part-time work which doesn’t make use of their skill…. Old-fashioned approaches to flexibility in the workplace and a lack of support for those wishing to re-enter the labour market are stopping employers from making the most of women’s talent and experience.”

Job design

It is apparent that despite the right for all employees to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment, there is still a shortage of inherently flexible working roles being made available.

With flexible working being one of the key tools for reducing the gender pay gap, companies should be considering their current working practices, and offering all employees access to flexible working and accommodating such requests, where business needs permit.

There will obviously be some job roles where the ability to work flexibly will not be possible, but often one of the main obstacles to increasing flexible working is senior management’s attitude and a culture where people feel that they need to be at their desks in order to be seen to be working.

It is time that these attitudes changed and organisations start to think about jobs in terms of outcomes, rather than time spent in the office.

High expectations

The ability to work flexibly and the rise in the technology enabling such working practices can, however, also mean that individuals never switch off from their working lives.

We can now check and respond to our emails whilst lying in bed or on a beach, which can lead to an expectation that we are always contactable by colleagues and clients.

This has the potential to lead to unforeseen health problems and impact on performance and productivity.

A report by the CIPD covering employee views on working life notes that “flexible workers are much less likely to report being under excessive pressure than people who don’t work flexibly, with 29% of flexible workers saying they are under excessive pressure every day or once or twice a week compared with 42% of people who don’t work flexibly”.

So, how can employers enable and encourage flexible working without creating an “always-on” culture? This can be achieved in a number of ways.

  • Being transparent with employees about what is expected of them both in work and out of hours. This can start with a mobile/flexible working policy, which should focus on outputs and outcomes rather than being present in the office and hours worked. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work because all organisations need to be flexible and adapt to their business needs, but workers still need more clarity about what is expected of them in terms of mobile contact and availability.
  • Monitoring technology-related problems and educating workers about the excessive use of portable and wearable technology for work. This can be achieved by creating information materials and training to educate workers on the potential risks of never switching off and ways to mitigate them, including speaking to HR or occupational health if they are feeling anxious or stressed as a result of work.
  • Leading by example. Executive management and senior staff should demonstrate their own approach to flexible working and wellbeing: does that email really need to be sent at 11pm, or can it wait for the morning? Sometimes it does, but often it does not. This should enable a change in the working culture and demonstrate that the organisation trusts employees to manage their own time and work output.

It is clear that flexible and agile working practices need to be implemented to adapt to, and encourage, new ways of working.

Employers have the ability to achieve successful flexible working arrangements but must also be conscious of the effects that being constantly switched on can have on their workforce. The way in which employers can start to accomplish this is through transparent policies, staff training and awareness and leadership change.

Sarah Thompson

About Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson is an associate in the employment practice of international firm McGuireWoods

One Response to How to find the balance between flexible working and “always on”

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    JOHN EARY 31 Jul 2017 at 11:10 am #

    Some good points Sarah, I think many employees have moved from Work-Life Balance to Work- Life integration and can practice ‘work wrapping’ as described here

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