We shouldn’t rely on narrow ideas to define flexible working

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flexible working bookOne of the particular and often unspoken issues that shadows in any debate about flexible working is what we mean by the term. We’ve been talking about new ways of working for a good quarter of a century now and what is generally understood about the practice has evolved considerably. The very idea was conceived at the birth of the new online era so is inextricably tied up with the Internet and new technology. That is why it first became a significant business issue in the mid 1990s as we felt the pre-shocks of the coming seismic disruption of the Internet. Laptops became commercially viable for the first time in the early 1990s and the UK’s first text message was sent in 1992. Authors such as Charles Handy were popularising the notion that our entire relationship with work was about to change.

Inevitably, a deal of nonsense was talked and a number of what turned out to be blind alleys mapped out. We were told we would all soon be working from home and the office would die out as a result. A new vocabulary emerged to describe these changes; teleworking, telecottage, hot-desking and road warrior. In Wales, a man called Ashley Dobbs even created a televillage in Crickhowell specifically aimed at providing a home for the predicted army of telecommuters. By 2000 the scheme was bust and while the language that went with it began to seem archaic, the ideas it espoused went mainstream, making it all redundant.

But it’s easy to be wise after the event. And, in fact, time has proved the truth of much of what was talked and written about during this period. We may not need the rural idyll of a specialist village in which to work, because we’ve colonised the whole world as an office instead. The vocabulary may have dated, some of the ideas may have been misplaced, but the underlying thinking was right.

This era marked the existential phase of thinking about where, how and why we work that persists to this day. Those have never been easy questions for organisations to answer and even if they were, we would still be left with the challenge of developing the right workplace model that satisfies the needs of the organisation and the people who work for it and of allowing for that model to evolve over time or be superseded by something else.

Unfortunately it appears that Government thinking about what flexible working means is based on ideas that were outdated more than ten years ago. For example, in the recent Government report into Work Life Balance, the definition of flexible working was restricted to the following:
• Part-time working
• Reduced hours (for a limited period)
• Job share
• Flexitime
• Compressed week
• Term-time only working
• Annualised hours
• Working from home regularly.

In this regard the report is out of step with what flexible working actually means for many people. The idea of a 40 or 48 hour working week can be anathema to the true spirit of flexible working when so many organisations now see work as being defined by its outputs, not the time spent on them. It is also perhaps why the report found that, while 97 percent of organisations now offer flexible working, the numbers of people working according to its defined categories had not increased significantly in seven years, and in the case of practices like job sharing had fallen significantly.

The Government has previous in the way it constrains itself with narrow definitions. Last Summer, the Office for National Statistics released figures which showed that flexible working was at a record high. The headline figure from the ONS was that 14 percent of the UK workforce now either work at home full time or use home as a base, a 1.3 million increase in six years.

The Government is claiming this as a victory for the promotion of flexible working through legislation and as a sign of the enlightened approach of bosses in helping employees find a better work life balance. This is only a part of the picture however and is based on a supposition that home is an alternative to the 9 to 5 in a fixed place of work. Things are a lot more complex than that.

For example, when you dig deeper you find that the uptake of homeworking is primarily driven by Britain’s rapidly expanding army of freelancers and micro-businesses. In the last quarter of 2013, the number of people identified as self-employed rose by a staggering 211,000 and there are now nearly 4.5 million self-employed people in the UK. These people aren’t working from home as an alternative to going to work in an office for an employer. There is no office and there is no employer.

Flexible working for those in larger organisations is also about more than working from home. It also describes work on the way to work, work in the evening, work in cafes, on client premises and in public spaces. Not only do practically all employers offer flexible working to their staff, all of us practice it. It’s no longer an alternative to the traditional time and place of work. It’s just work.

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03bdbc8Justin Miller is the sales director of office furniture and ergonomics specialist Wellworking