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Is flexible working the pair of jeans of the management world?

Dowload as PDF Like the world of fashion, innovative work methods, HR trends and management interventions are subject to trends; hip and happening for a brief while, before quickly falling out of style. However, one particular hype appears to have made a lasting impression: flexible working.

What does flexible working mean?

For decades, a lot of work in industrialized countries happened in office environments between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM. However, working outside office walls and hours is becoming increasingly popular. The employment conditions of circa half (Possenriede and Plantenga, 2014) of the Dutch workforce include some form of flexible arrangement. This means their supervisor allows them some degree of freedom to choose the time, location and duration of their work. The employee’s personal situation is taken into account. If they live far away from the office, for example, it will save them a lot of travel time if they can work at home several days per week. This extra time can be turned into increased productivity and efficiency .

Work-life balance
Employees who can work flexibly report an increase in their job satisfaction as a result of this flexibility (Possenriede and Plantenga, 2014). This is because one’s work and private life (e.g. caring for children or providing informal care) are easier to combine in theory – and often in practice. Research conducted by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women (CEW) in 2011 revealed that women believe that creating work models in which both men and women are supported in their familial responsibilities is a major factor in order to get more women in high-ranking positions. Bain & CEW (2015) showed that women hold less than 15% of the executive positions, despite the fact that more women graduate from universities than men.

The researchers suggested that, while many women still leave the employment market around the age of thirty to focus on their families, flexible employment could be the answer for this group of people. A double-income family in which both partners have flexible employment and contribute equally to the care for their children and parents would allow the woman to continue her career development.

What are the main issues related to flexible working for managers and employees?
Spending less time in the office is often considered taboo, despite the fact that it has frequently been linked to increased job satisfaction and productivity. The employee’s invisibility feels uncomfortable and could result in them slacking off.

Some of this suspicion is the result of not knowing how to manage flexible employees. It is common for both managers and employees to struggle with this modern system, yet these issues should be open to discussion and are certainly trainable.

The biggest problem appears to be the blurring of the lines between one’s personal and professional lives. If you work at home, you must be able to deal with those two worlds colliding. Working in an office with clear start and end times is easier to handle than working in a manner that is independent of time and place. Will the employee manage to create the right conditions to perform as needed?

An office environment has many qualities that facilitate people in their work; the average living room does not. Just think of the lighting conditions and the chair, table and monitor settings. Are there too many or not enough stimuli at home to work effectively? Is it even possible to replace the colleague stopping by for a chat? Do you turn on some music to cheer you up when you are struggling? Can you set your household chores aside long enough to finish the day’s work?

You can train the skills you need to get into the right flow when you are not in the office. It is advisable to avoid overwhelming employees with flexible work, without first training them in how to create a pleasant work environment for themselves at home. Experimenting with flexible working, discussing everyone’s experiences and slowly expanding the ratio; it all sounds simple, yet this method is still uncommon in practice. Furthermore, it is the employer’s responsibility to offer their employees the hard and software they need to do their work effectively and responsibly in external locations. What about an alternative workplace inspection?

A common pitfall associated with flexible working is that the focus is placed entirely on results, performance or end products. This can lead to a lot of stress. By working in short cycles (scrumming), a manager can offer process-based support and supervision and take some of the pressure off the employee’s shoulders. It is highly advisable to communicate throughout the day to make the work process, with all its barriers, open for discussion.

Some fashion hypes withstand the test of time. Take jeans, for example. Since their invention, they have always been in style. The key to their success is the fact that they come in all shapes and sizes, so there is a perfect pair for everyone.

The key to long-term success with flexible working appears to be to design the right jeans, i.e. flexible arrangement, per person, per situation and per position. The perfect “fit” is created by offering the right ergonomic tools for each flexible arrangement. When employers are well aware of and account for their employees’ individual situations and preferences, they can offer them the right hard and software. When an employee works in an ergonomically responsible manner at home or in an alternative location and is coached to take breaks and alternate between standing up and sitting down, they will be able to perform with optimal focus and in a responsible manner during their flexible working hours.

Finding the right flexible and ergonomic fit could result in a level playing field in which the gender gap for executive positions is bridged and more diverse leadership teams can be created in the future. On top of that, employees’ job satisfaction will increase and families benefit from an optimal balance between work and private life. With all these advantages and practical ways to avoid pitfalls, we should hope that flexible working will not turn out to be a flash in the pan, but rather the jeans of the management world.

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