The right to be flexible

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Written by Armin Hopp on 23 July 2014

With summer in full bloom, many of us are keen to leave the office a couple of hours sooner than usual and enjoy the good weather. We can make up for this by shifting our schedule and starting at 7am instead of 9am, or by staying later the next day. But will our employer agree to this?

A new UK legislation says yes. Employees across the country are now legally entitled to ask their bosses for flexible working conditions, even if they don’t have children to take care of. The only condition is that they have worked in the organisation for at least six months. Employers can decline requests in certain cases, e.g. if they can prove that the new work pattern creates additional costs or has a negative impact on quality and performance.

Culture of presenteeism

I’m interested to see how this new legislation will affect work-life balance in organisations. The UK has always had a strong culture of presenteeism (the act of attending work while sick), with work-life balance sounding like something alien, from the past. In most companies, employees are under constant pressure to be first in and last out of the office door. They’re competing with each other in working overtime, regardless of whether they’re actually being productive during their 10-14 hour shift or not. Furthermore, as work has become increasingly mobile, staff members are expected to be ‘always on’ and available, even during weekends, evenings or on their holidays.

Being able to allocate our work schedule as we like might help to solve this. If we’re allowed to choose our working hours and can prove that we’ve been productive and met all our targets, be it between 7am and 5pm or 10am and 8pm, is there any point in being glued to our desks for an unnecessary amount of time? Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, being able to schedule work according to your own preferences is a promising opportunity. With increasing globalisation, we find ourselves regularly working across different time zones, e.g. with people from the Americas or the Far East, meaning that we often have to be at work early or stay later. A flexible working arrangement would facilitate this, too.

Allowing for downtime

An article by Ferris Jabr[1] in Scientific American shows that our brain needs some downtime to regenerate and become productive again. According to Jabr, rest does not equal idleness, but quite the opposite: downtime is “an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has learned”, he writes.  Just being physically present in the office for the sake of it will not lead to additional business.

We all know from school or university that our brain can only manage so much work per day and that regular breaks are necessary for us to be efficient while we write or study. Thanks to smartphones and tablets, learning is now just as flexible as work itself, and can take place from remote locations. You don’t even need the internet for mobile learning – at Speexx, we’ve developed a plug and learn solution which allows people to study offline and synchronise their learning progress once they reconnect to the internet. This way, people continue their training as they prefer, whether it’s during the evening or while they travel. It’s all about finding the time and location suits us best in order to be productive. And of course, about making room for the occasional break to process the information we’ve taken in.

Communicating change

But let’s ensure that flexibility isn’t confused with generating even more presenteeism, and that we’re not expected to start answering emails in the middle of the night in order to be ‘flexible’. As with most business issues, communication is key and management plays a crucial role in making sure that new policies are communicated clearly to everyone in the organisation.

Our workforce needs to understand the benefits and potential downsides of a flexible working culture. Trust is a further crucial element. If managers show that they trust their employees to carry out their work effectively in a certain amount of time and are not counting their hours, employees will typically feel more empowered and motivated to be productive and drive real business results.

About the author
Armin Hopp is the founder and president of Speexx. He can be contacted via www.speexx.com

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