Flexible Work Is The Future Of Work

The modern worker has been proven to value autonomy over their work schedule more than almost any other feature of working life.  What does this mean as we try and build a workplace fit for the talent of the future?

A recent study from the University of Melbourne highlighted the importance of autonomy over our work, both in terms of productivity and employee engagement.  The research found that employees around the world were more likely to be intrinsically motivated when they had the power and freedom to work as they saw fit, alongside a degree of mastery over their tasks.  This was especially pronounced when they were surrounded by colleagues, managers and even friends and family. That the finding was consistent across numerous studies conducted around the world suggests it’s something we should be paying close attention to.

Perhaps the most obvious way employers can give staff a degree of autonomy is in the freedom to choose their work hours.  Flexible work is a concept that has long had supporters, yet in large part remains on the margins of organizational life. It’s high time this changes however.

For instance, a recent Stanford study found that employees who worked flexibly were in many ways model employees.  When tracked over a nine month period, employees who worked flexibly were more productive and happier than their 9-5 peers, whilst they also worked longer hours and had less time off sick.

This was then replicated in a second study conducted at a Fortune 500 company in which employees who worked flexibly were happier, less prone to burn out and generally psychologically better off than their peers.  Key to the success of the flexible working cohort was the training they and their managers received on how to shift focus towards outcomes rather than facetime. Indeed, managers were given specific training to encourage strong work-life balance and professional development among their teams.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employees in the flexible working group reported not only feeling happier and more productive, but also more supported by their manager, able to spend more time with their families, and ultimately more loyal to their employer.  The researchers believe to replicate this kind of result must first require flexible working to be ‘de-stigmatized’.

“The worker thinks, ‘If I ask for special treatment, it will kill my career and I won’t get promoted.’ The manager thinks, ‘If I give in to this employee, others will ask me too and no one will get their work done.’ Even many academics take a skeptical view flex of programs and see them as a way for Corporate America to take advantage of workers,” they say.

A flexible ideal

If you want to instigate flexible working in your own workplace, a good place to start might be in some recent research by Florida International University.  It wanted to explore whether particular kinds of roles and tasks are better suited to flexible working than others.

The analysis revealed that the most effective tasks performed remotely involved complex tasks and limited levels of interpersonal interaction.  If the tasks were more social in nature however, then it’s best to be physically close to your team.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining the rapid rise in the gig economy that gives workers the freedom to work on projects of their choosing, largely independent of official hours or location.  Indeed, such has been the growth in so called digital nomads that some countries have gone out of their way to be as attractive as possible to this new class of worker.

Foremost among these is the Baltic state of Estonia, who are set to launch a special work visa for digital nomads that would allow them to work in the country for up to 365 days.  Indeed, if the project goes as planned, the visa will also allow the workers to travel anywhere in the 26 nation Schengen zone for up to 90 days.

Striking the right balance

Of course, most organizations aren’t going to be staffed fully by those working entirely flexibly, so striking the right balance between those working remotely and those working from your office.  The importance of this was highlighted by a study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries.

The researchers took a slightly different stance to traditional studies of flexible working in that rather than focusing on the flexible workers themselves, they focused on the employees who didn’t (or couldn’t) take up the opportunity.  They found that for these people, coming to the office fulfilled a vital social function, and when their work involved collaborating with others, this also helped their productivity.

This presents a problem if many of your colleagues are working remotely as the benefits you seek are not really available.  It reminds us that not only is each employee unique, but their needs are also different, both from a social and professional perspective.  It isn’t something that should be offered to all people, all the time and in the same way therefore, and should be something that your culture encourages on a case by case basis.

As trends such as the gig economy grow in popularity however, it’s inevitable that the lifestyle benefits this affords people will begin to cross over into traditional workplaces too.  This can bring tremendous benefits to both employer and employee alike, but it’s vital that you manage it effectively. Hopefully this article will help you to do just that.


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