Professor Gail Kinman writes about the need for greater flexibility at work and why that shouldn’t mean working all hours.
Flexible working is defined as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs: e.g. having flexible start and finish times or working from home”. Organisations and individuals alike have high expectations that working flexibly will improve staff wellbeing and improve productivity. Yet there are still many barriers to taking up flexible working. Employees may be reluctant to request ‘non-standard’ working patterns due to concerns about job insecurity and future job opportunities.
Research findings suggest that such concerns are warranted. There is evidence that flexible workers are considered less motivated and less worthy of promotion than those with fixed hours of work. Worryingly, they are also likely to be stigmatised by employers and employees and by younger as well as older workers.
There is evidence that men who wish to work flexibly are subject to particularly negative perceptions. Although more fathers are entitled to paternity leave, less than half take it and this year’s figures highlight a fall in uptake. Men fail to take paternity leave for several reasons relating to job type and financial concerns, but lack of encouragement by managers and concerns that they will be seen as less committed to their job are key factors.
A recent study that presented people with scenarios about hypothetical male employees found that those who requested family leave were thought to possess weak, “feminine” qualities (such as uncertainty) and fewer “masculine” traits (such as dominance and ambition). In turn, these perceptions influenced the extent to which participants thought the men should be rewarded (recommended for promotion) or punished (given a salary reduction, or fewer responsibilities at work). Interestingly, female participants were as likely as males to stigmatise men who requested family leave, but women tended to express stronger views that such men were “poor workers”.
Equitable opportunities to work flexibly are required for all employees, regardless of gender. Nonetheless, it is not enough to offer alternative ways of working; steps should be taken to reduce the stigma and increase their uptake. It is particularly important for supervisors and senior managers to actively embrace these initiatives and act as champions for flexible working.
Flexible working is not, however, a panacea if it means people feel the need to be ‘always on’ and if workload issues are not addressed. Information communication technology (ICT) has enabled a growing number of people to work flexibly. It can help employees manage the competing demands of their work and personal life more effectively and allow them to work whenever and wherever they wish. Nonetheless, ICT has major implications for work-life balance as people can feel pressure to be always available to respond to queries and issues.
Social norms require that emails require a rapid response, whether urgent or not, and what has been termed ‘email overload’ can increase working hours and the risk of burnout. Our own research has found that technology can lead to ‘time-based’ conflict between work and personal life, as people commonly work longer and harder at home than when they are in the office and their colleagues and managers may see them as being more readily available. Switching between work and family tasks (which is often considered an advantage of working flexibly) can engender feelings of conflict between work and family roles, further extend working hours and reduce effectiveness in each role.
We have also found that excessive use of ICT outside standard working hours can also increase feelings of strain. Worries and concerns about work are more likely to spill over into personal life as psychological boundaries between domains are weaker. Habitual use of ICT during evenings, weekends and holiday periods can also lead to resentment in family members and feelings of guilt in employees.
Little guidance is available to help people manage ICT in a healthy and sustainable way, so they typically self-manage – with a varying degree of success. It is crucial for organisations to help their employees become more ‘e-resilient’ by providing support, as staff who lack opportunities to switch off (physically and mentally) are more likely to burn out and their job performance will also suffer. Individuals also have some responsibility to manage their use of technology by switching off.