Flexible working: A blessing or a curse?

David Leithead 01.11.2019

‘Flexible working’ isn’t a new concept, but recent years have seen a huge change in its popularity amongst office workers. The much talked about Millennials and Gen Zs put it in the top 4 things they look for in an employer and consequently many companies vaunt and flaunt it as a key weapon in the war for talent. Whether it’s the autonomy to decide start and end times of the working day, or to decide location and work patterns, flexibility is now a frequent demand from office professionals across the UK. But who is benefiting most? It seems that flexibility drives up working hours and that might be an unintended, unwelcome and unhealthy outcome.

Part 2 of 3: Flexible workers toil away out of view of their office based colleagues

Our extensive 2019 working hours and flexible working survey has revealed how, despite the increasing adoption of flexibility and the demand for a healthy work/life balance, 91% of white collar office professionals in the UK are working beyond their weekly contracted hours. Most do it because they feel pressured by their workload, yet they don’t feel more productive from working the extra hours and they don’t receive any compensation. Our comprehensive survey had 1,500 respondents and in this series of 3 articles, we examine the findings.

The rising prominence of flexibility in the workplace

Flexible working has become a prolific trend in white collar offices across the UK - 55% of our survey respondents no longer view flexible working as an additional benefit but see it as ‘expected’ when looking for a new job. 

So flexibility is often a primary demand of job seekers, either around their hours or having the opportunity to work from home. This might be because many want their jobs to coincide with their busy home lives, for example around child care or caring for elderly relatives, but more generally it reflects an overall changing attitude towards work. Accordingly, organisations have had to adapt and adjust their cultures to stand any chance of attracting high quality talent. But it is worth noting that despite the hype, actually many companies are behind the curve on this one - 65% of respondents answered that their employer offers flexibility in the workplace, but that means a large 35% said their employer does not. For those people working for enlightened employers, ‘work from home’ was the most common form of flexibility, followed by ‘flexible hours’. Of the 65% who can work flexibly, a very significant 84% make use of the opportunity. This proves that employees do value arrangements in the workplace which help them balance their work and home life commitments. 

Type of flexible working offered

Should you have to qualify for flexibility?

One contentious topic for employers is around eligibility for flexible working. Should employees reach a certain level of seniority before they can benefit from flexible arrangements? Or a certain minimum performance/output level? Should parents be allowed a greater range of flexibility? Employers responding to our survey demonstrate this dilemma, with only (52%) stating that ‘everyone should have the same options’. A key challenge is that many of the decision makers on this policy, and also many of the (sometimes quite junior) management that have to actually make this work and still get results, grew up in a totally different culture and find it very difficult to get their heads around. “But in my day, I had to earn it” is a common refrain.

This may also be a reason why on-trend announcements about flexible working often result in a skeletal policy that sits hidden in the drawer rather than developed, evolved, openly discussed and improved. More than one third of our respondents perceive that their organisation ‘has not improved flexible working offerings in the last 2 years’. It’s critical to both employee and employer that these policies are dusted off and updated regularly.

Does a negative stigma still surround flexible working?

Despite its growing popularity and the take up reflected by our survey results, you don’t have to look far to find plenty of reports on negative views of flexible working, with co-workers arguing that those working flexibly create more work for others, or that workers (and perhaps particularly females) who take up their employer’s offers of flexibility are jeopardising their career prospects. Our findings, though, show that these views are changing; we asked the respondents who work flexibly whether their remuneration has been affected and 86% answered ‘no’, and when the full 1,500 were asked if they think chances for career progression are damaged by flexible working, 42% replied ‘no’ compared to 35% who answered ‘yes’ and 23% who responded ‘not sure’.

And what about the impact on output, on results? From the perspective of employees, 78% believe the increased adoption of flexible working has ‘had a positive impact’ on their company’s performance and profitability. The employers seem to echo this view, although less emphatically, with 57% perceiving that flexibility in the workplace will ‘positively influence’ companies in the long-term.

Flexible working is positive for businesses

Could adjusted working hours help improve productivity?

What if companies go a step further than allowing autonomy over hours and actually enforce a shorter week, say, 4 days? At the time of writing this, that notion has been a big headline grabber for the Labour party and there’s little doubt that it could be a vote winner, with plenty of UK employees eager to see it implemented - 65% of our respondents think that they could have the same productivity output with one less day in their working week. But there’s a huge question mark here about what it means in practice. Are employees going to work 20% harder each of those 4 days? Will they end up extending the hours on those days to cope, and is that a healthy outcome? Or will they just work the 5th day anyway? There’s a lot of research and opinion (discussed in part 1 of this series) to suggest the 4 day week would mean more stress and less productivity.

If not one whole less day per week, then would adjusted working hours be more effective in improving overall productivity? The majority of our survey respondents (61%) state how they work more efficiently in the morning whilst in comparison, only 19% claim to be more productive in the afternoon. Employers could harness these precious hours of heightened productivity and move the working day forward to start earlier. If an organisation wanted to trial whether this would be effective across their teams, they could offer it as a type of flexibility and track the performance of those who choose to utilise it.

Flexible working - most efficient in the mornings

Mobile devices: Enabling flexibility but increasing working hours

Flexibility in the workplace and its rise to prominence has obviously been enabled by technological advancements that mean the majority of today’s office workforce can easily perform some of their roles from wherever they want, during whatever hours suit them best. Rightly, if an organisation gives its employees a mobile phone or laptop, and allows them the flexibility to spend fewer of their working hours in the office, there’s a reasonable expectation that they will be contactable when outside the office. But a big challenge for an individual line manager, and therefore his/her organisation, is how to prevent blurred lines and contact spreading to a time when the non-visible employee is actually outside of their bespoke hours pattern. 

There are exceptional situations where companies go above and beyond to manage this phenomenon using the latest tech tools and gadgets to work in harmony with their employees, not only to limit explicit pressure on that person to work outside hours, but also to limit implicit/accidental pressure (by limiting communications in line with work patterns) AND to coach employees to down tools at the right times for the right, positive reasons. But that’s nirvana for most employers, and the fact is the status quo for most employees is not being able (for any number of reasons) to put the tools down. A significant 62% of our survey respondents report being available on mobile devices outside working hours, with many checking their emails before they get to the office and staying online whilst commuting home and well into the evening. 

Flexibility in the workplace is perceived to be primarily a benefit to the employee, but does it have any downsides?

The benefits of flexible working, for both employee and employer, are well recognised. When we asked employees to single out one primary benefit, ‘improved staff wellbeing’ (43%) was the most common response, followed by the obviously very closely linked ‘reduced time/spend on commuting’ (30%). Unsurprisingly, this suggests that many elect to work flexibly for personal reasons rather than specifically for the advantage of their employer. 

In contrast, though, when asked to highlight the biggest downside to flexible working, a ‘less engaged workforce’ was the top response from both employees and employers. Hmm...not so good, and both sides seem to be recognising this problem. How can organisations overcome this hurdle? You can find out in the final part of this series.

Flexibility isn’t a fleeting workplace trend, it’s here for the long run

An ever increasing number of office professionals are being granted their wish to have more flexibility around when, how and where they get their work done. Perhaps ironically, they  can end up working a greater number of hours every week, and physical presenteeism is simply being replaced by digital presenteeism. Is the grant of flexibility an employer’s generous gift, or a fantastically clever way of squeezing more blood from stones? Now there’s a conspiracy theory for you...

Businesses have come a long way in terms of offering employees flexibility in the workplace, however they need to ensure they continually adjust and update processes. This will allow them to monitor just how much work their flexible employees are doing and will, in time, bring about a beneficial cultural shift within the workforce.  

About the survey respondents…

The majority of respondents work across Banking & Financial Services, Professional Services or Commerce & Industry. 48% were male, 51% female. Just under three quarters were permanently employed (74%), 21% were temporarily employed and the remainder were either self-employed or unemployed. 63% of respondents work in London, 37% outside London. The highest proportion of respondents were at mid-management level (39%), followed by operational/executive (25%) and senior management (18%) - the remainder consisted of entry level, C-Suite and those who didn’t want to disclose their seniority.

David Leithead's picture
Chief Operations Officer UK
dleithead@morganmckinley.co.uk