The right for almost all employees to request flexible working has been enshrined in law for the last 18 months and was designed to push us all to work more flexibly. Since then, many companies have gone much further than what is strictly required by law to attract and retain staff, including introducing new flexible working/family friendly policies and investing in different ways to help staff work remotely. The thinking has always been that this must be a good thing: to focus on a worker’s output and not on how much ‘face-time’ they have in the office (in other words, presenteeism is dead, long live flexible working!)
However, this year has opened with a flurry of newspaper reports hinting that maybe the 9 to 5 culture of earlier times that Dolly Parton used to warble about was not such a bad thing (that Jane Fonda film seems a very long time ago now!)
Recent studies, including a study by Professor Kinman of the British Psychological Association, have shown that flexible working can take a heavy psychological toll on workers by encouraging a "grazing" approach to work which sees their stress levels shoot up every time they check their work email or take calls when out of the office and means their stress levels are consistently higher than they should be.
Changes to ways of working are probably less to do with the shift in law and policies and more closely allied to rapid changes in technology. New technology means people can have access to workplace emails wherever they are at all times of the day and means they can potentially do more and also multi task. But, for some people this means they are ‘always on’ and never switch off (even when they are ill or are on holiday).
Some organisations have policies which expressly forbid employees to use their mobile devices (which have to be handed in) during annual leave and forbid them to look at work during that time. Although many may not like what they may see as an over-controlling parental approach, companies would do well to think about how flexibility works for their staff and the best ways of managing additional stresses which can be caused. For example, if someone is showing symptoms of stressed behaviour, it might be appropriate to intervene and try to control their out of hours work. It will be interesting to see how this area develops in practice over the next few years.