Flexible working is not only about work-life balance

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The rationale for flexible working usually focuses on work-life balance. Ben Black, director of My Family Care, says more research is needed on why working from home and at different times of day will physiologically suit some people more than others. 

Sleep expert Dr Paul Kelly has made headlines recently by claiming that forcing people to work nine to five is akin to torture. He has also suggested that older children should start school at 11am to stop them becoming drug addicts or alcoholics. That’s according to the Daily Mail, at least.

Is this nonsense, or is there some truth behind the headlines? I have some empathy with Dr Kelly’s starting point. My older two children are boy-girl twins of 10. She gets up early, is full of beans in the morning and gradually starts getting grumpy and tired as the clock ticks past 9pm. He is a creature of the night who can party with the best of them, but getting him out of bed for school is a challenge. If I was their boss rather than their dad, I would know that their best work would happen at different ends of the day.

One solution is flexible working. Thanks to the internet and modern mobile technology people can and do work more flexibly. Being able to work more flexibly and actually doing it are two different things, but the best employers – businesses such as IBM and Deloitte for example – genuinely understand that allowing people to work in more agile ways can be a win-win situation.

The employer needs a bit less office space and ends up with a much happier, more engaged and productive workforce.  Getting flexible working “right”, however is both complicated and difficult.

Lottery-funded research by Lancaster University and Working Families summarises the challenge. The findings show that men in big, successful, private-sector organisations who had found a way to work flexibly were the least likely to lose their jobs when the credit crisis hit. In other words, they were the hardest working and most valued employees.

Conversely the dads working flexibly for a large civil service department were the most likely to lose their jobs when the credit crisis hit. In this case, flexible working meant working less.

Dr Kelley’s article helps focus on why flexible working actually works for the individual. Flexible working works because people are happier. They are happier because typically they have found a way to balance work and family. If career and “life” are not mutually exclusive then individuals will be far more engaged with the employer that has allowed them to reach that happy state of affairs. And engaged people work longer and better.

The problem is that theories about what individuals want focus on the logistical needs of people to find some balance in their complicated lives. The narrative is almost exclusively about being able to pick up the kids from school and make the occasional visit to your increasingly dependent mother. Very little has been written yet about just why working from home and at different times will physiologically suit some people far more than others.

Some people work better in the evenings. Some people want and need the visual and oral stimulation of an office. Others will do their best work sitting at home in their pyjamas with Coronation Street gently murmuring away in the background. If you’re going to embrace agile working then understanding these physical differences seems obvious and essential.


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