Does This Recession Finally Herald the Flexible Job Age?

Last Updated Aug 7, 2009 11:53 AM EDT

Just over a year ago, we hosted a working session presented by Professor Ellen Kossek to a large group of UK employers on the nature of flexible work today. It was clear then that flexible work practices and the issue of work-life balance were no longer marginal but had entered the mainstream.

In the US, with less than 20% of families having single earner breadwinners, at least one member in over 80% of US families is likely to have to juggle childcare or eldercare with their work. In the UK, some 14 million people already work flexibly according to the UK government.

For organisations, the business case for flexible working has been well documented and in the midst of recession we have seen flexible working take an important role in reducing costs and helping firms avoid having to make redundancies. The use of flexible work has driven many traditionally minded companies to consider alternative work arrangements to bring costs down and protect workforces.

But does this mean that the traditional work arrangement is finally in demise?

Unfortunately not. Organisations are still primarily structured and culturally underpinned to support traditional work arrangements and careers. In the UK, long hours are still an inherent problem
with the tough economic climate causing firms to ask for greater sacrifices to be made by staff.

A progressively focussed HR team working within a FMCG giant recently told me that it took the closure of their main office due to snow to convince many managers that they could function well with people operating outside the office, rather than be at their desks.

For those firms that have embraced flexibility, there are also a host of potential pitfalls which few truly understand in order to make it work.

For individuals, with changing work and family structures, having access to flexible work will not necessarily relieve work-life stresses. Being at home more may make you feel that you have to be more accessible and connect with work outside office hours.

You may feel that you have to justify being outside the office and be more productive than office based co-workers, working harder and putting yourself under greater strain. Being at home may mean that you become more embroiled in domestic responsibilities, such as looking after the children. You may also find that you miss the office!

For organisations, managing staff who work more remotely is harder. Less face time with remote staff can create problems, while in-house teams may also need managing as a consequence, as Wayne Turmel points out.

Simple logistical problems can also arise. An HR manager recently explained to me that implementing homework in Denmark was very difficult as people tended to live in apartments, which made setting up a home office particularly tricky.

With such potential problems, flexible work may not realise anticipated benefits or may even fail. However, it is clear that such arrangements are here to stay and likely to become more common. The sooner both firms and individuals figure out how to make it work, the better.

Here are some tips:

  1. Work-life balance is different for each individual, based on their own circumstances and who they are. One size does not fit all and may only work for the right kind of person in the right kind of role.
  2. Individuals need to understand what they can expect and how to plan for flexible working. Ellen Kossek's book "CEO of Me" is probably a good starting point
  3. Cost/benefit: firms should work out what potential costs and benefits are involved. Typically, benefits should greatly outweigh costs but investment is likely be needed.
  4. Job design is critical - what roles can be flexed and in what way? From 100% homework to flexed hours, there are myriad alternatives. This is one area where a good HR department should be of real help. Getting teams to come up with their own schemes can also create the best solutions, as happened at UK construction firm Balfour Beatty.
  5. Team building: organizations will need to work harder at team building with flexible or remote teams. How often do you get everyone together, what forms of meeting do you have? In essence, what do you need to do to create high levels of trust and collaboration?
  6. Career development: flexible working may create career development problems for staff, especially for part time workers. Work out on what basis people progress and how you avoid discriminating against flexible workers.
  7. Do some research: there are many helpful web resources and organizations that provide guidance on flexible working that can provide valuable insight.
(Pic: otubo cc2.0)
  • Stuart Woollard

    Stuart Woollard is Managing Director of the King's College London HRM Learning Board. After gaining over 10 years' senior level business and consulting experience, Stuart worked as a global HR Director in the financial services industry and was also Managing Director of UK operations. Stuart's areas of expertise include business strategy, people strategy and performance, organisational development and change management. He has published research on the role of HR in international mergers and acquisitions (CIPD) and on the impact of the current recession on HR and the workforce. Stuart makes regular contributions on HR issues to a variety of industry and special interest groups.