Does Flexible Working Increase Productivity? – Part One

Flexible work arrangements give you some control over when, where and how you work. The exciting news: pretty extensive research finds that workplaces that offer flexible arrangements are both more inclusive and more productive. But like all workforce management strategies, the success of policies depends on implementation. COVID has given many of a glimpse of the effectiveness of flexible working, but does the theory of increased productivity align with the practice? 

2020 gave us a unique window into what we are truly capable of when work itself works for them. As we return to work, we must ask ourselves: What should we do to continuously tap into the best of what humans can do? 

‘Flexible working’ is more than just working from home. It’s about working from wherever you need to be, whether that’s from a café with a client, a customer’s conference room or during your commute. By making the best use of technology such as audio and video-conferencing, instant messenger and mobile internet, this can be achieved while strengthening collaboration and enhancing a sense of community between colleagues – even if employees aren’t physically in the same place.

Business opportunities can be won or lost in a matter of minutes. Having employees who can work from anywhere, at any time and who aren’t tied to their desks means small businesses can be more responsive. In fact, being fleet of foot is one of the biggest advantages over larger competitors.

Getting back to basics, the option to work from home or choose work hours gives you the liberty to tailor your work schedule around your caring responsibilities and other obligations. In a survey of over 1,000 members of the Australian business, not-for-profit and government community, 22% of men and women returning to work after parental leave reported that “the availability of flexible options was important in their choice to return to work.”

Does flexible working really work in practice?

Another demographic shift in Australia and several other developing countries is the rising proportion of older workers. As our population ages and medicine and health breakthroughs advance, people are working for more years than previous generations. Economic growth, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, also increasingly relies on businesses retaining older workers as sources of expertise, experience and labour. However, On the one hand, older workers are physically capable of working longer, so they could stay in the workforce. On the other hand, they’re tempted by retirement so they can travel, spend quality time with family and friends, or pursue a favourite hobby. Flexible work arrangements such as job sharing (one job shared across two people) or phased retirement (a worker gradually decreases their work hours over several years) can give workers the best of both worlds.

But for all of us, COVID had thrust upon us the need to work from home whether we want to or not. Some have found the new paradigm challenging, but many have found the concept not only liberating but having dramatically improved their productivity. Having zero commute time (and expense), fewer distractions of colleagues’ chats, nipping out for a latte or attending interminable meetings has had the effect of dramatically increasing efficiency and output. Yes, of course, working from home can have its own distractions (hello, Facebook notification ding!), but the mere fact of self-regulating your own time and knowing that your personal output is now highly exposed has had the effect of turning home-workers into highly efficient employees, who take more pride in their work than ever before. This is a fascinating social experiment that we’ve all been placed into, and the data dump form it will take years to unpack. But the fact is home working and the flexible hours that naturally spring from it is here to stay, and the signs are it’s a positive thing for both employee, and employer, who gets the benefits of increased performance and reduced overhead costs. 

However, it should be noted that flexible work arrangements should be accompanied by clear expectations when it comes to workloads and continued communication around issues of stress and mental health. Flexible work practices have sometimes been found to conversely increase workloads and stress. This can be attributed to a number of possible reasons, such as blurred boundaries between work and home | leisure. Remote working can lead to a sense of isolation from colleagues. In Part Two, we’ll look at ways to counter that effect and remain a productive employee. 

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Does Flexible Working Increase Productivity? – Part Two