By Dr Miriam Marra, Lecturer in Finance at the ICMA Centre.
A flexible workplace may entail different things: working remotely, part-time, and/or flexible working hours.
According to YouGov, 54% of British businesses allow workers to work remotely. 64% of employees who work remotely think that this type of work makes them more productive, or at least no less productive, and 66% believe that it is very or fairly important to allow flexible working (the split of 63% for men and 68% for women is far less significant than what some would expect). An Ernst & Young and Timewise Solutions survey also found that, amongst UK full-time workers, 63% already work flexibly in some way and 87% either work flexibly or would like to. However, less than 1 in 10 ‘quality jobs’ (i.e. permanent roles paid more than £20,000 on a full-time basis) are advertised with options for flexible working.
Commercially, this is a big loss for the talent market as it limits career progression and job mobility for professional people who need to work flexibly, and for businesses who want to attract or retain the best talent, especially amongst female employees. Previous research by Timewise and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 1.9 million people in the UK could benefit from a quality flexible job and have the necessary qualifications to do it.
A Deloitte and Timewisesurvey suggests the persistence of a ‘flexibility stigma’: 25-30% of flexible-workers feel they are regarded as having less status, given access to fewer opportunities, have missed out on promotion, and are penalised for not attending work events outside working hours. Barriers to flexible working are primarily cultural, including the attitudes and behaviours of managers. Business leaders should push for change and challenge the stereotype that flexible working is only for non-senior roles and female employees; statistics clearly show that it is important for everyone. Flexible working should be part of transparent settings and offered as an option at the recruitment stage.
From my own work, I have found that the probability of women being in top management is higher if other women are there as well, the argument could also be true for flexible employees. If it affects a larger share of senior employees, men and women, then that could lead to a normalisation, better flexible-employment conditions, promotions based on outcomes and better chances for men and women to bloom within corporate environments.
Recently, I came across a Financial Times article on social media where a professional woman says that “working remotely means working three times as hard, at an efficacy rate of around 5 per cent, while simultaneously having a nervous breakdown”, pointing at absence of face-to-face interaction, dehumanising nature, failing technology and excessive use of instant messaging and monosyllabic instructions. I noted that in the comments section many men and women disagreed with her, the majority saying that her way of doing it was the wrong way. What does this mean for employees who actively pursue these opportunities? Is it all just about juggling things and managing a complicated lifestyle? How to ‘walk the walk’?
Working flexibly needs to be managed at the right level; working from home with children around or on too many different tasks at once is not working flexibly. You need a good work strategy and a clear perspective ahead to make the most of the advantages.
I see five main positive outcomes from flexible working, besides life-facilitating arrangements:
1) Freeing up time to take up more diverse tasks or other roles, if desired
2) Allowing headspace to think about your own personal brand and be aware of, and share, your successes
3) Choosing not to walk up just one corporate ladder, instead building your reputation through an extended network
4) If negotiated appropriately, flexible working can help you do less of what you dislike and more of what you like
5) Building resilience and a ‘thick skin’ to deal with the wider business world and personal circumstances
Flexible working can be beneficial for businesses and employees and help create #BalanceforBetter, which was the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day. We just need to be strategic and tackle it in the right way.