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Is flexible sensible?

The nature of the workplace is rapidly changing. As digital technologies become more embedded in our lives and progressive workplace attitudes emerge, the nine to five mentality is increasingly outdated, encouraging flexible working to take centre stage.

In the CIPD’s (2019) report this year, flexible working is described as an expansive term, referring to working arrangements that deviate from standard working patterns, such as nine to five, or a central workplace location. Approximately, 4.2 million people in the UK now work flexibly to encourage a greater work-life balance, especially around child care (ONS, 2014). The popularity of flexible working among employees is also reflected in its growing popularity within organisations. In our recent whitepaper, it was revealed that 27% of organisations perceived flexible working to be an essential wellbeing trend, highlighting how workplace practices are evolving.

Given the trend towards flexible working, what does this means for wellbeing? Is flexible working beneficial to employee health? It might come as a surprise to learn that researchers are somewhat undecided. Although researchers often agree on the potential benefits of flexible working, from greater control over your workload, to a better work-life balance, the potential drawbacks are just as regularly acknowledged, especially in terms of social isolation, being ‘always switched on’ due to technology, and a lack of career progression.

Understanding the inconsistencies surrounding flexible working and employee wellbeing is important when answering the question: ‘Is flexible, sensible?’. Essentially, despite the trends in flexible working, one size does not necessarily fit all. This could be due to workplace design differences, in terms of organisational support and co-worker relationships.

Research has shown that when employees feel as though their organisation believes in flexible working, which is demonstrated through giving employees more autonomy and engaging in less monitoring, this promotes greater job satisfaction. Similarly, in a more recent study, the researchers found that perceptions of work-support and positive co-worker relationships were related to the wellbeing of flexible workers. Not only are these findings useful in explaining how the wellbeing of flexible workers can be improved, but they also lend well to the flexible working business case. Employees who are happy, typically perform better. Therefore, if employees are more satisfied working flexibly and organisations encourage autonomy over working hours and location, this could result in better performance over time.

Having acknowledged some of the trends and research about flexible working, there some important takeaways and tips. These are useful to consider if you are an employee who works flexibly, or an employer looking to improve your flexible working policy.

  1. What do employees want? –  researchers are still uncertain as to whether flexible working improves the wellbeing of employees. This is likely due to an outdated perception that one size fits all.  However, by adopting an approach whereby the employee is asked ‘what works best for you?’, this ensures that the employee is working in a way that aligns with their characteristics and responsibilities, in turn, meaning that organisations can have greater faith in their employees.
  2. Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of flexible working – with every benefit of flexible working, there are also drawbacks. Knowing this is useful as it creates avenues for intervention. For example, perhaps weekly meetings and check-in sessions could be arranged for those working from home, to mitigate against social isolation and build co-worker relationships.
  3. Adjust and adapt where appropriate – there are several factors that contribute to whether an individual will benefit from flexibly working or not. These include whether an organisation believes in flexible working, whether employees are overly monitored and whether employees feel they have strong relationships with co-workers. These factors can significantly impact the relationship between flexible working and wellbeing, but only require minimal adjustment. Therefore, flexible working can be sensible, it just needs to be better understood.