Is flexible working overrated?

How do you manage the sweet spot between work-life integration and overwork?

Is flexible working overrated?

The terms ‘hybrid working’ and ‘flexibility’ have taken over our conversations lately as organisations plan their next steps for the post-pandemic world. What does it really mean and how do you figure out what’ll work from your company and what won’t? After having a taste of genuine flexibility in the past year, everyone’s who learned to thrive while working remotely has come to expect it in their day-to-day.

So much so that more than half (58%) of professionals would absolutely look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position. A further 65% of employees expected to work remotely full-time post-pandemic, with another 33% desiring some sort of hybrid work arrangement, found FlexJobs.

Read more: Going hybrid? Here's what to factor in your HR policy

A rejection of the ‘old normal’

A Skillsoft study found that almost all (over 90%) employees across the region expected pandemic-related policy changes to become permanent once everything blows over. A mere 11% of professionals said they’d accept a return to the pre-COVID world. Overall, employees would like to see more flexibility in their work, with half expecting flexi-hours (59%) to become a norm, and another half (58%) wanting more opportunities to work from home.

And as the situation normalises across the world, we see these studies come to life in cases like Apple for example, where employees revolted against a mandate requiring them to return to the office. Staff made clear that they preferred a flexible arrangement that allowed them to work remotely if they chose to do so. In an internal letter, they said that the policy was “not sufficient in addressing many of [their] needs”.

What type of flexibility do employees want?

To avoid such a disaster, how do you figure a feasible flexible policy for all employees in your organisation when everyone has different needs? While the Skillsoft study highlighted flexi-hours and flexi-location as top on employees’ wish lists, another FlexJobs survey dove deeper into what workers wanted most post-pandemic:

  • A flexible schedule and control over when you work (26%)
  • The option to work from home full-time (25%)
  • A work environment that understands childcare demands (17%)
  • To work from home part-time (15%)
  • Freelancing opportunities (10%)
  • An alternative schedule to a five-day, 9-6 work week (7%)

Read more: Hybrid vs Office: Who will win the remote work war?

Is ‘Work from Anywhere’ policy for you?

Then there’s the ultimate flexible policy – the ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA) initiative. Spotify made headlines this year after announcing that they’ll adopt the policy. However, they’re hardly the first or only employer to do so. A quick search online shows that global companies like Basecamp, GitHub, Shopify, Siemens, Twitter, Upworthy and WordPress have also adopted the policy.

Despite the allure of being able to take full control of your work schedule, could it work against you in the long run? In a recent discussion, leaders discussed the concept of hybrid working and while both everyone agreed on its merits, there seems to be a catch-22 to a WFA policy. “We are beginning to hear requests from our employees about what kind of flexibility will they get in the new state [hybrid working],” said Peter Goh managing director, human resource & organisation at GIC.

“Talking about cultural differences, we know that in Europe and the Americas, which we have employees as well, they really have a long summer break. They would usually go away with their families for, I don’t know, two to three or four weeks in the past. In the new world where we know that remote working is possible, they are all beginning to ask: Would they be given the flexibility to work anywhere in the world for a few weeks a year? So that they can integrate their family time and work time, even while away in the summer.”

Read more: How to help remote workers manage work-life integration

The perils of ‘always on’ culture

In that scenario if you implemented a ‘work from anywhere’ policy as requested by staff, would you also be unintentionally perpetuating an ‘always on’ mindset – that even on holiday with your family, you’d have to check emails and get on video calls? This is a real concern as ‘always on’ culture has existed pre-COVID and only gotten worse with the blurring of boundaries between work and personal time.

What’s more, some employees were already working while on holiday in the past, so implementing a proper policy sounds risky for individuals who have trouble ‘switching off’ on the regular. In 2019, Snow Software found that seven in 10 professionals struggled to disconnect from their job while on holiday. Most employees (71%) had a bad habit of bringing their work-issued laptops on vacation. This caused problems with their overall well-being, thereby their productivity down the road as well as the increased risk of burnout. Unfortunately, findings showed that it could also lead to increased financial and security risks for the business, as 45% of professionals said they’d lost or had their devices stolen while travelling.

Read more: Is presenteeism worse than absenteeism?

Manage both mental health and flexibility

While an open-ended flexi-work policy like ‘work from anywhere’ may not work for everyone, especially with studies highlighting that overwork or unplugging was the biggest challenge for remote workers (35%), leaders will need to address the growing demand for flexibility. To have a balanced flexi-work policy, leaders must consider other employee needs such as the desire for a continued focus on personal well-being (47%), and more family and personal time (47%). But they should also keep in mind that more than half (56%) of employees experienced burnout during the pandemic.

There will be some tough decisions to make as companies design policies for the post-pandemic workplace, but one HR head has a useful tip for fellow leaders. “The current times has put a lot of flexibility in place,” said Eugene Loh, global head, HR at Swire Pacific Offshore. “In terms of HR policies, [the] design I think is going to be less prescriptive and more of a guideline. I think we have to also understand every employee’s needs – so, their constraints, life circumstances – and not have a policy to be very prescriptive. It’s more [about] going out to the ground and understanding what employees want and how they feel. I think the care that we have to show [for employee policies] has gone up a lot.”

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