I’m writing this as I sit at my desk at home. I’ve taken my boys to school. I’m in easy reach of the kettle, and I’m being nagged by a beagle who knows that I spend my lunch break walking her regardless of weather.
I’m also connected to work through Skype (voice, messaging and video), phone, text messages, what’s app, and email. I’ve been contacted through all channels this morning.
A few years ago, I had the big commute so was leaving early, and getting back late. I was frazzled. Admittedly, it was great having company and grown-up conversation but the daily trudge to the office was exhausting. I felt the guilt of not feeling like I was seeing the children. I felt stressed that I was leaving earlier than my colleagues to get back for nursery, and then having to do Mummy duty before logging back on.
When flexible working is effective, it can be a great thing – whether it’s part-time, condensed hours, term-time working or home working – it gives the employee the flexibility to balance their work and their lives. It works for people at all states of their lives; whether people want to combine work with studies, or fit around family life, or reduce working hours rather than retire completely. The benefits for the employer are multiple: retention of staff and their knowledge, increase in engagement and motivation and reduction in turnover.
Employees also welcome the opportunity to work flexibly; Powwownow’s Flexible Working survey 2017 states that 67 per cent of employees wish they were offered flexible working, and 58 per cent of people believe that working away from the office would help them be more motivated, and even 40 per cent would choose it over a pay rise.
For me, it reduces travel time, allows me to work with no interruptions – or with the right kind of interruptions such as taking the dog for a walk at lunchtime – and can have a huge impact on quality of life. It lets me manage my home life and my working life. I’ve got the benefit of progressive employers who understand that encouraging flexible working means increases in motivation and productivity, reductions in stress and improvements in outputs.
However, if the employee or the employer doesn’t manage it properly, the impact of flexible working can be negative.
So what can go wrong?
It can be lonely. Working at home without physical interaction with people can be miserable (although those of a more introverted disposition might love it). I counter this by scheduling a dog walk every day with a selection of friends. Pre-dog, I might visit someone for a coffee or do a gym class. I always find it important to try to get a break from the laptop, same as if I was in the office.
It can be hard to ‘switch off’. Leaving the office is generally a mental shift from work to non-work. When you work at home, you’re always in your office environment. Try to use a different ‘work room’, or even wear different clothes to help your mind move from being at work to at home.
Alternatively, you need to be able to self motivate as a home worker. If you feel that your sofa, breakfast TV, and a packet of biscuits is calling then it’s probably going to create more stress than the discipline of an office. Trust is key in flexible working: your manager needs to trust that you’re working, and you need to ensure you do or there’ll be conflict and inevitable consequences.
As a part-time worker, it can be only too easy to try to fit a full-time job into part-time hours. Some companies retain an expectation that they’re doing you a favour by allowing you to work part-time, which can lead to unrealistic expectations of your performance and productivity which can obviously be really stressful.
How do we reduce the negative impacts of flexible working, and celebrate the positives? These are my top tips for managers and employees.
- Be positive when you get a flexible working request. Talk honestly with your employee about how it might work, and use the trial period and clear objectives to assess whether it is successful.
- Reduce workload in line with the reduced hours. Flexible working is not working fulltime in part-time hours, which will only increase stress and anxiety, as well as feelings of resentment.
- Understand that if someone is a part-time worker, they work particular days or hours. Don’t schedule meetings into the times when they’re not working (it does happen!).
- Remember the homeworkers. Working alone can feel isolating so finding ways to include people in team activities is important: not just an invite to a team meeting over Skype or the phone, but also social activities.
- Keep an eye on the mental health of flexible workers. Do they seem stressed? Has their behaviour changed? Ask for extra support if you’re worried, such as from HR or a private GP practice.
- Be clear about the hours or days you work, and whilst some flex is important, it should be unusual rather than the norm.
- If you’re starting to feel low or lonely, take a break at home; have a walk at lunchtime, or pop out for a coffee.
- Make sure you continue to have social relationships whether you’re part-time or a homeworker: make time to pop into the office and meet your colleagues. Whilst technology is great, nothing beats face to face for building and developing relationships.
- Talk to your manager about the technology you can use to stay in touch: Skype, mobile, email, WhatsApp, instant messaging apps… There are a host of ways to stay connected.
- Set aside a particular space to work where you won’t be interrupted.
- If you’ve moved to part-time working, don’t feel guilty if you’re not doing everything you were doing. Naturally, your workload should reduce.
- If you’re feeling stressed by your flexible working, talk to your manager or HR to try to resolve the situation and reduce your stress.
- Enjoy it!
Interested in wellbeing in the workplace? We recommend the Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Forum 2019.
Vicki Field has 20 years’ experience in senior HR positions. Starting her career with Vodafone on their inaugural HR graduate training programme, she progressed rapidly to a position supporting an IT division, and finished her time there by setting up the HR helpdesk for 11,000 employees. Vicki moved to Accenture in an inhouse HR role, before joining PruHealth as the 6th employee pre-launch of the new company. PruHealth has now rebranded to Vitality, and Vicki’s role as Head of People encompassed everything HR-related moving from a start-up to one of the largest insurers in the UK. Vicki also supported the launch of Vitality Life. Vicki had a team of 40 HR and Training professionals providing a holistic HR and training function to all employees. Vicki is now HRD of London Doctors Clinic, which offers private GP services to corporates and individuals through face to face and video services.