How to address the ‘always-on’ risk of flexible working: Part I

Figures from the recent HR Summit and Expo 2016 suggest that business loses hundreds of billions of dollars to illness, including employee stress and disengagement. That’s backed up by studies in the UK that estimate that 10 million working days were lost to work-related stress in 2015 alone.

Numerous studies suggest that flexible working – including flexi-hours and home-working – could be a key solution, affording employees work-life balance that improves motivation and reduces stress-related sick days.

So far so good. There are, however, some challenges, which firms must address if they, and their employees, are to reap the mutual benefits on offer from working more flexibly.

Reports in a number of papers earlier in the year, for instance, suggested that flexible working practices can in fact cause more harm than good. The reason, according to experts quoted by The Guardian, is that they encourage an ‘always on’ culture that can take a heavy psychological toll.

The technology and/or the home office is always on hand to respond to an email, edit a report or engage in a million and one other work matters that prevent proper rest before the next ‘official’ working day. It’s no coincidence that an Ofcom report in 2015, for example, found that adults spend on average more time using technology than sleeping each day.

For employers who don’t think long-term, there’s an obvious advantage to this. You shift from being an employer that has to settle for standard office hours to one who can enjoy a 24/7 workforce at your fingertips. And possibly for less money too because you’ve cut your office overheads. Fabulous.

But there’s a big problem here. Think about those figures quoted up top. How does adding more employee stress factor into those? Not just that too, but many firms are using flexible working policies to sell a reputation of caring for employees. This has huge merit. Employer brands that prioritise employee wellbeing attract more talent.

But it has to be authentic. If you promise wellbeing and in reality promote an ‘always on’ mentality, by engaging in behaviours like emailing your staff at all hours of the day and night (because they’re flexible, right?), then you will incur potentially irreparable reputational damage. It’s also arguably a lot worse than an employer brand that never suggests it’s anything but tough (perhaps demanding long hours in return for a high salary). This is a brand pretending to be something it’s not – offering perks that are anything but.

In an age when employee-led reviews are commonplace (think Glassdoor), law firms, and all businesses, need to be really careful to ensure that flexible-working policies are just that: a flexible alternative to office hours, not an excuse to expect more for less.

Would you like to know more about how to achieve this in practice?

In Part II of this piece, we will look at practical strategies for implementing flexible working policies that really do improve productivity and engagement, and reduce the costs caused by stress-related sickness.

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Remote working, Time management, Flexible working

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