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Overcoming the challenges of flexible working

By Professor Clare Kelliher


Driven by both legislation and evolving employer attitudes, flexible working has come a long way over the past decade. Not only do employees now have rights to request flexible working, but employers have also become increasingly aware of the business benefits conferred by an openness to flexible working.

Because whether flexible working is in response to an employee’s care obligation, or simply a change in personal circumstances or preferences, it turns out that giving employees some choice over their working arrangements can pay dividends.

Research that we have conducted here at Cranfield School of Management, for instance, highlights that employees with flexible working arrangements often deliver better performance than those employees who work in more traditional ways. Moreover,  the provision of flexible working arrangements also builds loyalty towards the employer.

And, of course, by providing flexible working—whether that is in terms of where employees work, when they work, or how much time they spend working—employees can achieve better job and life satisfaction.

Flexible working can have unexpected consequences

However, as with so many aspects of people management, the devil is in the detail, and some organisations have found that implementing flexible working policies presents them with a number of challenges.

Sometimes these have been foreseen, but other times not. What’s more, flexible working can also give rise to unanticipated consequences—both good and bad.

Nor should this be surprising: when people change the way in which they work, invariably other things have to change too. For an organisation to get its approach to flexible working right—and to maximise the benefits available—this requires hard work and careful thought.

In short, despite flexible working becoming more widespread, its upsides may be counter-balanced by some unanticipated downsides. And here at Cranfield, our research into flexible working practices has identified a number of areas which continue to challenge employers.

Part-time working is the most difficult form of flexible working

First, part‑time working is often a more difficult form of flexible working to achieve than some other forms of flexible working, such as remote working and flexitime.

Not only does part‑time working involve a change to the formal contract of employment, but where an employee moves from full‑time working to part-time working, practical difficulties are often encountered in terms of establishing an appropriate workload, and in agreeing expectations of availability.

Sometimes, these are serious enough to create tensions, or adversely affect employees’ work-life balance—the very thing that flexible working is supposed to nurture.

Flexible working: think about teams, think about workflow

Second, while flexible working has received a lot of attention, most of this has been on the implications of flexible working for individuals and their performance.

But in reality, many employees work in teams—teams which may potentially include other flexible workers—where it is important for team members to be able to collectively co‑ordinate their work, relying on interactions with others to help them complete their tasks.

Clearly, in order to maximise the benefits available from flexible working, employers need to pay attention to how different working arrangements will actually influence how a team operates.

Informal flexible working can be suboptimal flexible working 

Thirdly, looking at those organisations where flexible working has become the norm, it is often the case that much of this flexible working has been arranged on informal basis.

It is simply agreed between the employee and his or her line manager that they will work remotely a day or two a week, or will arrive at work a little bit later, or leave slightly earlier to accommodate non‑work commitments.

While there is much to commend such informal arrangements, they can also mean that less attention is given to ensuring that a person who works in a different way still manages to fit in with the overall organisation and its workflow.

Consequently, the burden of making this flexible working actually work often falls mainly on the employee. This is unlikely to be the best way to gain the most benefit from flexible working, and also implies a penalty associated with changing working arrangements.

Flexible working: the bottom line

Pulling it all together, it’s clear that flexible working is here to stay. Huge strides have been made in the last few years, and both employees and employers are viewing the working day—and working week—through different eyes.

Not least, of course, because flexible working can be  a rare ‘win-win’: something that benefits both sides, and at minimal cost.

That said, flexible working delivers most fully on its promise when some thought is given to how it will work in practice. As flexible working becomes even more widespread, sensible employers will want to make sure that they do think through its implications.

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