Flexibility: A Creator of Insecurity or Added Value?

Employee working from home

The impact and importance of flexible working hours has been a hot topic for decades. On the one hand, flexible work has been linked to the rise of greater societal hazard in Beck’s ‘risk society’, and to the decline of jobs for life. Many sociologists have argued that flexible work can be damaging. For example in 2009, Kalleberg, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, noted that since the 1970s work had become precarious, leaving workers insecure.

There are also more current worries in the UK that Zero Hours Contracts could be a form of flexible work that supports employers’ needs at the expense of employees. However, there is another, wholly more positive side to the debate surrounding flexible working patterns. Kelliher and Anderson (2009) found that flexible work in UK companies actually created the conditions needed for work intensification amongst professionals, and said that flexible workers recorded higher levels of employee satisfaction and company loyalty than those who did not work flexibly.

Recent research from UC EXPO, which surveyed 1,000 UK office workers, sides in favour of flexible employment. It found that 82% of workers surveyed said that they would be more likely to take a job that offered flexibility (including working different hours and working remotely), and 90% felt that flexible work was important for maintaining a better work/life balance. Furthermore, research conducted by the think tank, Centre for Modern Family, has discovered that 23% of the 2,000 workers they surveyed would take a pay cut in order to be able to work more flexible hours.

Reasons that have been given for the importance of flexible work include:

  • Reducing stress - workers can often become stressed if personal matters clash with work, for example if they have a sick child or elderly relative that they need to look after. By making work more flexible, these worries are alleviated, and stress levels are less likely to creep up.
  • Increasing engagement & productivity - flexible workers are less likely to experience exhaustion or burn out, because when they need a break, they can take it and catch up on work later on. Being able to work when you are in the right mindset means that engagement is likely to be much higher. This will also help to improve productivity levels as employees are not working at times that are not suitable to them, so are less likely to be distracted.
  • Improving work/life balance - flexible workers are more likely to be able to fulfil their social and family needs because their time is not so regimented.
  • Improving company loyalty - companies that offer flexibility could be seen to be valuing and understanding their staff’s needs more. It shows that they appreciate diversity, and proves that they treat each staff member as an individual with different needs. If employees feel that they are being looked after properly by their company, then the likelihood that they will take their talent to a competitor is significantly reduced.

The debate surrounding flexible work is a nuanced one, and for every plus in one area there appears to be a minus in another. In certain sectors, flexible work allows employees time to have a work/life balance, whilst in other sectors it could cause workers to feel insecure and undervalued. What is clear is that when flexible work is used as a positive tool to empower workers, it has the potential to make work better for everyone. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to that traditional 9-5?