The risks of flexible working and how to manage them
As British employees now have the right to request flexible working, at Robertson Cooper we’ve been having lots of conversations about the best ways to manage work-life integration recently, from hosting roundtables to conducting research with our partners, Bank Workers Charity.
Data that we’ve collected from employees at an international governmental organisation gives us some telling statistics on working from home – a type of flexible working. 1 in 3 of the organisation’s employees are able to work from home, although only 12% of them currently do so. We found that the employees who are able to work remotely are significantly less troubled by issues around control than employees who are unable to do so, but those who do choose to work from home are significantly more troubled by work-life balance issues than those who do not.
Now, it’s unsurprising that the people who are able to work remotely feel that they have more autonomy – they’ve been given the opportunity to make choices about how they carry out their own work. However, working remotely is meant to provide employees with more of a work-life balance, so it’s surprising to see that those who choose to work from home are more likely to suffer from blurred lines between their professional and personal lives.
Over the last couple of years, the quest for work-life balance has started to become a thing of the past and seems to be transforming into a desire for individuals to create harmonious work-life integration, a concept where professionals work to blend what they do personally and professionally in order to make both work. But how do organisations and individuals make work-life integration work?
With the many benefits of working from home (spending more time with family, saving money on childcare, the list goes on…) comes a number of risks.
Research (Hislop et al., 2008) shows that working 14-15 hours from home each week results in the optimal level of job satisfaction – go over this and you run the risk of having a negative impact on your wellbeing. In today’s tech world, it’s extremely difficult to restrict ourselves to only doing work during working hours; we all find ourselves sneakily checking our emails in front of the telly once in a while – some more than others. In 2014, French unions and employers signed a labour agreement to protect employees from work emails disturbing them outside of office hours. Now, two years later, the French government is deliberating whether to pass a law which could give employees the right to disconnect from work emails at home.
Whilst organisations and, in this instance, governments can facilitate positive working behaviours, part of the responsibility is bestowed upon the individual, who has to make the right choices in order to have good days at work, even if they’re at home. We need to set up “boundary breakers” to help us to do this – things like:
- Containing the work space (laptop, files etc.) into one room or place in the house, rather than moving from the spare room, to the kitchen table, to the sofa
- Taking breaks and eating lunch away from the work space, preferably in a different room
- Keeping personal lives separate, for example, if the kids come home at 3:30pm, workers shouldn’t allow them to come into the work space until it’s time to sign off at 5pm
If individuals put these kind of rules into practice, they’re much more likely to maintain a healthy balance between work and home life.
If your employer allows you to work from home, it means they trust you, right? Well, you’d hope so. But with more and more knowledge workers setting up office at home, some managers will inevitably fear that if an employee isn’t visible, they must be doing less work. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, famously banned remote working after she checked how long employees were logged into Yahoo!’s VPN when they were working from home, showing a distinct lack of trust of not one, but thousands of employees.
Now, whilst being trusted by your manager to work independently at home isn’t an employee right, it is something that employees and organisations need to build in to a healthy relationship for remote workers. Using crude measures of productivity, like in the Yahoo! example, only serves to encourage the wrong behaviours from employees – just because you’re not connected to the VPN it doesn’t mean that you’re not working. Creating trust is part of a mature psychological contract between employer and employee, which leaves both parties confident in their ability to deliver the work – whether it takes place in the workplace, home or elsewhere.
It’s no surprise that employees who work from home have less contact with colleagues and managers, and could risk feeling lonely or no longer “one of the team”. Social connection is a key part of work satisfaction, so again it’s about a balance in responsibility on both sides to make sure this isn’t completely lost for remote workers.
This includes creating habits for contact and engagement, such as purposely using the phone and conference calls over email and other online communication tools for catch ups and meetings. Managers should also create opportunities for face-to-face contact by assigning projects that require collaborative working. Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with a healthy dose of personal responsibility – individuals need to recognise feelings of isolation and make a proactive effort to overcome loneliness by opening up conversations with their manager and colleagues, and limiting remote working to a reasonable proportion of their working week.
Ultimately, by creating a working culture that promotes work-life integration, employers and employees are mutually responsible for effectively utilising flexible working to ensure that everybody has Good Days at Work.