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The business case for flexible working

 

The business case for flexible working

Flexible working, though not a new concept, continues to grow in popularity. Thanks to the internet, which has allowed for remote access to emails, servers and even people via web-based conferencing, many employees now work from home, during their commute or in a place of their choosing. Others benefit from flexible start and finish times, or share their role with another worker to reduce their hours.

 

In 2014, the growing trend of flexible working was enshrined in law, with all employees granted the right to request the ability to work flexibly from their employer, assuming they have been continuously employed for at least 26 weeks.[1]

 

However, though they can ask to work flexibly, our research suggests as many as one in five (20%) workers believe their employer does not allow any form of flexible working.[2] It will not always be practical for staff in all professions to work flexibly. But by stopping the practice in their organisation, many employers could be missing out on vital business benefits. 

 

Flexible working linked to improved employee health, wellbeing and productivity

For an employee, there are evident benefits to working flexibly. It allows them to better balance their responsibilities in other areas of life or improve their work/life balance. If employees feel less stretched, they are less likely to feel the negative effects of stress. Flexible working therefore has clear health benefits: our research shows that while a third (32%) of employees working in an open plan office say feeling anxious or stressed because of work regularly affects them, only 17% of those who work predominantly from home say the same.[3]

 

For many, flexible working is a practical solution – for example, if an employee lives far away from their organisation, working from home periodically or travelling outside of busy periods could cut back on ‘lost’ hours spent travelling to and from their job. The Office for National Statistics claims that feelings of happiness, life satisfaction and the sense that one's activities are worthwhile decrease with every successive minute of travel to work.[4] Cutting lengthy commutes (between an hour and an hour-and-a-half long) can therefore have a positive effect on personal wellbeing as well as being a practical measure.

 

Happy and healthy workers are naturally more productive. Given the link between flexible working and improved health and wellbeing, it is no surprise that among those who work flexibly, three quarters (77%) agree it helps them to work more productively.  This boost to productivity flags a key business benefit of flexible working, particularly given productivity (and how to improve it) is such a hot topic in the business community.

 

Overcoming key hurdles

So if flexible working improves worker wellbeing and boosts productivity, why would employers be against it?

 

One of the biggest concerns for employers may be the lack of communication and ‘face time’ flexible workers experience. Though technology has given workers many ways of communicating, there is still significant value in face-to-face conversations. Not only are issues often ironed out more quickly, but it helps teams to bond and socialise. To get round this, partial flexible working can be put in place, so colleagues do occasionally come into the workplace and benefit from some face-time.

 

Being present in the workplace is often linked to working and being productive, mainly because an employer cannot always be sure what their employee is doing when they are working away from the office. There are obvious flaws to this theory – simply being present does not equate to productivity, and research suggests that flexible or home-based workers may work productively for longer than their office-based colleagues to avoid being accused of not working hard enough.[5] Employers have a duty of care to their staff, so if an employee is still sending emails late at night, it is worth ensuring they are not feeling stressed or overburdened.

 

There is a risk that employees who frequently work flexibly might feel isolated or cut off from their organisation. Only 12% of those who work predominantly from home say they feel like they belong to a team and their role in that team is valued, versus 37% of those in an open plan office.[6] Extra effort may therefore be required to ensure flexible workers feel engaged and supported. Employers should ensure flexible workers regularly receive communications around employee benefits and support systems such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), so they know where to turn if help is needed, noting that they will not benefit from in-office posters and leaflets, for example.

 

Overall, while flexible working can have its challenges, the benefits to staff wellbeing and productivity arguably outweigh these, and employers should think carefully about how their organisation could benefit with a flexible working policy in place.

 

[1] https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/applying-for-flexible-working

[2] Canada Life Group Productivity research, March 2018

[3] Canada Life Group Productivity research, March 2018

[4] ONS, Measuring National Well-being, Commuting and Personal Well-being, 2014 Release: Does commuting affect well-being? (February 2014) - link

[5] Monthly Labor Review, The  hard truth about telecommuting, Mary C. Noonan and Jennifer L. Glass (June 2012) - link, BBC News, Teleworking: The myth of working from home, Margaret Ryan (February 2013) - link

[6] Canada Life Group Productivity research, March 2018

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