Once upon a time, the clue was in the name with an “office job”: your employees would brave the commute each morning to sit at their office desk, usually between the standard hours of 9-5.
But over time, layouts changed; closed-off cubicles gave way to open-plan offices, desks developed “standing” positions, meeting rooms became “breakout areas”, and fun gimmicks like nap pods and hammocks undercut the starchy humourlessness of office life.
But this flexibility has gone beyond aesthetic flirtation. More companies are applying it to employee organization itself, to the point where an “office job” now no longer requires employees to even come into the office. And it seems to be working – for employees and their employers.
While the idea of flexible working has been around for a while, in the last decade it has taken on a new force entirely. It encompasses anything from compressed work weeks, reduced hours and job sharing, to working from home. The most “extreme” version of flexible work – working completely remotely – has increased by 115% among the non-self-employed population since 2005, and is continuing on the up.
But there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding it. Employees avoid requesting flexible working for fear of looking lazy, and employers put off granting it for fear of the message it sends. Much of this comes from it being dubbed a “millennial” trend, and all the negative trappings that comes with – like laziness, flakiness and unprofessionalism. But many people have just been conditioned into thinking “working from home” is code for “slacking off”, and that people will only work honestly under the constant panopticon eye of their employer.
But in practice, flexible working has been shown to have countless benefits for both employers and employees, to the point where it’s no longer just a nice employee perk. More candidates are now expecting some form of work flexibility as a minimum requirement from their potential employers – and existing employees expect their companies to start taking notice. A 2018 survey showed how the option of flexible working is more in-demand than ever before, with over half of respondents (53%) claiming that they “value the flexibility to work in different locations”.
Recruitment and retention aside, flexible working represents a huge opportunity for companies more generally. While the narrative has focused mainly on the benefit to employees, there’s a lot to be said for why flexible working is good for business.
Studies have repeatedly shown that flexible working positively impacts employee performance and wellbeing. To cite a few findings:
Clearly, the practice can pay dividends in terms of increased productivity, motivation and focus – in addition to greater employee happiness.
Offering flexible working is also one of the best things you can do to support the mental health of your employees. It gives people vital leeway if they don’t feel well enough to work during rigid set hours, can’t face coming into the office, or simply want the autonomy to manage their health they way they know works best. This is one of the foundational reasons why many believe flexible work should be a regular part of company policy, rather than just a “nice-to-have” occasional perk.
Flexible working arrangements help directly address structural sexism which disadvantages women in the workplace and places limits on male involvement in childcare. After having children, women still tend to take on the majority of child-rearing work; often renouncing several of their responsibilities at work, or dropping out of the workforce completely. In addition to just granting men and women equal “parental leave”, companies offering flexible working give new families an extra advantage: new parents can fit work around their childcare arrangements and, crucially, both parents can be present to raise their new child.
The increasing demand for flexible working is unlikely to stop anytime soon. As the millennial generation begin to take over from senior staff, flexible working may well overtake the traditional 9-5 office shift. So if your company isn’t already offering some form of flexible working at this stage, you might quickly fall behind.
It’s natural for employers to worry about managing a workforce on flexible working arrangements, but the technology to make it work for the long-term is already there. Virtual team communication, meetings, project collaboration and employee time tracking – all the tools you need to run a perfectly functioning team have been tried-and-tested to the extreme, and are used every day by thousands of brick-and-mortar businesses. Most offices actually already use “virtual tools” without even realizing it; if your office depends on instant messenger, email, video calls and cloud-based files you’re basically halfway there to flexible working.
It only takes a quick look around to see the monumental shift taking place across the entire workforce, with more employers waking up to the productive, fiscal and cultural benefits of flexible working. For many, the future of work is already here; for most, it’s just a case of taking the next small step.