To what extent are flexible working arrangements mutually beneficial for both employees and employers?
This essay will look to argue that whilst flexible working arrangements can be beneficial for both employees and workers, in most cases, they end up favouring the employer. The concept of flexible working is defined as occurring when employees move from working a fixed number of hours, often across a set number of days, and towards a more flexible schedule (Noon et al, 2013). This can be based either on the needs of the employee or on the needs of the business. In general, flexible working has thus come to be heralded as a strategic imperative for many companies, allowing them to balance the staffing needs of their business, whilst also providing a more accommodating workplace for their employees (McCarthy et al, 2010). However, according to Bales et al (2018), flexible working has also contributed to a widespread deprivation of workers’ rights within the contemporary workplace. This essay will thus look to evaluate and assess how this has happened, and the implications for future workplace relations and management.
The arguments around the harm of flexible working may appear at odds with the initial introduction of flexible working. Following the removal or regulations around fixed working times and structured employment contracts from many labour markets in the 1980s, employees began to be more open to the concept of working flexibly (Noon et al, 2013). As a result of this, one of the first major booms in flexibility in the developed world occurred in response to this growing openness. This was further supported by shifting social demands and expectations around the need for employees to balance their work and home lives, and not spend long working hours in the office (Tausig and Fenwick, 2001). Indeed, arguments proliferated that working fixed and long hours could be damaging to the health and productivity of employees, and some flexibility in working could allow employees to balance their home and work lives and achieve higher levels of output (Eng et al, 2010). Such arguments were particularly promoted for employees with specific family needs, including those with families and restricted access to childcare, or other situations which could make it hard for them to work effectively at a job with fixed hours or only one acceptable location.
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Following this initial surge, the concept of flexible working has developed further. As such, flexible working is increasingly available, in theory, to all individuals based on their needs, even if these are individual needs rather than external factors such as a family (Robbins et al, 2010). Modern flexible working has also been supported by technological advancements and changing social habits, allowing individuals to use technology to work from anywhere. This has supported a focus on achieving high levels of workplace productivity, rather than working for a fixed amount of time (Yadav and Dabhade, 2014). Research has also shown flexible working is important to some groups in the workplace. For example, women have been shown to value flexibility in working to allow them to follow their own goals and achieve a desired balance, not just to look after a family (Harvard Business Review, 2013). Kultalahti and Vitala (2014, p569) also highlight the value of flexible working for younger workers, considering “the motivational drivers of the Millennials: flexibility, work-life balance, convenient social relationships”. This hence shows how flexible working can help to benefit various employees.
At the same time, in theory, employers can also benefit from flexible working through higher productivity and happier staff, as well as using flexibility to match staffing to work activity. Unfortunately, the rise of flexible working has also contributed to concern that excessive flexibility, particularly if employees are no longer physically present in corporate locations, may reduce work rates and harm the achievement of business objectives (Maxwell et al, 2007). This has seen organisations push back against many demands for flexible working, particularly when a flexible or remote working schedule is seen not to benefit the organisation (Gregory and Milner, 2009). As a result of this, there are arguments that managers will often only consider employee requests for flexible working based on the impact on the business, rather than the needs of the employee (den Dulk and de Ruikter, 2008). In fact, many flexible working practices have been linked to greater levels of work intensification, with reduced pay, as employees are expected to produce the same amount of output in fewer hours (Seifert, 2013). This has contributed to arguments that modern flexible working systems benefit employers far more than their employees (Galea et al, 2014).
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Technology enabled flexibility working has also been cited as creating problems for employees. In particular, the rise of smart phones and ubiquitous internet connections has meant that individuals can be monitored by their employers at all times, whether in work or not, and thus are expected to respond to work queries at all times, even outside their working hours (Stock et al, 2014). This is often justified on the grounds of flexibility, with the claim that the employee has the flexibility not to work when they have no tasks, but must in turn be available to work when needed. At the same time, flexible working practices may make employees feel less valued if they work fewer hours or are working remotely and not connected to the business at all times (Giddens and Sutton, 2013). This can contribute to a culture of needing to be always present in the office, even with no work, to avoid the image of being less connected, and hence less valuable, to the business. Such outcomes have been shown to reduce levels of job and financial security, potentially causing psychological harm to employees (Giddens and Sutton, 2013).
Such an issue has become increasingly pronounced in recent years, where flexible working has turned many previously part time jobs into so called ‘zero hours’ contracts. These types of contracts provide employers with high levels of flexibility, as they do not actually commit to give their employees any fixed or minimum hours of work (Seifert, 2013). In theory, as with the idea of flexible working in general, this form of contract can be beneficial to both employers and employees, as there is no mutuality of obligations around working hours. As such, individual employees can turn down work as they wish, only working when it is convenient such as when they can arrange childcare (Bruce, 2013). However, in practice this is not always the case for employees, who may find that they are under pressure to accept contractual hours and may not be offered work in the future under a zero hours contract if they turn down work in the short term. As such, there is a prevalent outcome that, as with flexible working in general, zero hours contracts are used to help organisations to keep down costs by minimising employee hours and only having staff work when there is sufficient work to them to do, thus further intensifying work (Abbramovsky et al, 2012).
In general, zero hours contracts and other forms of extreme flexible working highlight the main issue with flexible working arrangements, namely that flexibility is a continually negotiated process without the benefits of a formal contract to fall back on and define the obligations of each. In theory, this can benefit the employee if they have sufficient power in the negotiations. Indeed, some of the most skilled and valuable employees are often those who benefit most from flexible working opportunities, working from home when they need to and using technology to work fewer hours whilst delivering high levels of productivity, and knowing that their employer cannot easily do without them (Chen, 2014). This includes many professionals, who already enjoy positive working environments and high levels of job security. In contrast, many modern workers are much less skilled, and lack the experience and network of contacts required to give them power in these negotiations. As such, any flexibility in their working processes is likely to be defined by employers, and thus primarily be to the benefit of said employer (Buchholz et al, 2009).
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In conclusion, whilst flexible working arrangements sound attractive and valuable for employees, in reality they are often exercised in a way which is largely based on the needs of the employer. Flexible working arrangements can be valuable in many cases, including for people with family or other commitments or those who will function better and be more productive in a more flexible environment. However, flexible working arrangements are also often valuable for employers, allowing them to match labour to work more efficiently, whilst also using technology to extend flexible working into the home lives of their employees. This can create pressure on employees, particularly on less skilled employees who will be less able to negotiate equally with their employers around mutually beneficial flexible working. In particular, low skilled workers on very flexible and zero hours contracts will find it very challenging to gain fair treatment and beneficial flexible working. As these individuals are amongst the most numerous, and also at the greatest level of existing disadvantage, in the labour market, it is thus impossible to conclude that flexible working arrangements, as currently implemented in many countries, have a net positive benefit for employees.
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