Does Flexible Working Lead to Better Productivity?

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Love it or hate it, I am pretty sure you have heard of the concept of “flexible working.” Ever since people first realized they do not have to work like a machine, screwing in everything that is shaped like a hexagon much like in the Charlie Chaplin movie “Modern Times,” the fight for a better work arrangement has been nonstop. Especially in recent decades, the astonishing advance of technology has opened up the door to a new world where employees have some say over when, where and how they work. Flexible working comes in numerous forms, including part-time work, remote work and reduced hours. I will not start making a list, but you can find a brief explanation of 12 types of flexible work arrangements here.

What is to love about flexible working as an employee? The benefits are quite obvious. As more people seek a better work-life balance, being able to work flexibly is a huge perk. Come to think of it, the expression “work-life balance” actually contradicts work with life, as if they were each other’s worst nightmare. Is it possible to turn these foes into friends? Maybe flexible work arrangements are a good start. A flexible schedule and/or location can also save a significant amount of commute time and cost; plus, no more energy wasted on road rage! Even better, people can work at their best hours. Personally, I am not a morning person. Waking up early to get dressed and travel through hours of traffic to the office can be so exhausting that even a double espresso cannot make me any more productive. Not intending to represent everybody, I do see a pattern that my fellow millennials seek to escape the old-school way of working.

But, we all know that running a business is not charity work; it is only fair if flexible working also benefits employers comparably. The most straightforward outcome is probably happier and healthier employees. When employees are happy, they are less likely to leave and are more committed to the success of the business. For situations where employees partially or completely work away from the main office, office operation costs go down. For many customer-facing organizations, staggered scheduling means extended operation hours. The HFTP Global office is a perfect example of this practice. It has extended hours of operation which is accomplished by having some staff start very early in the morning and leave early in the afternoon, and others who start later and stay late. This benefits the association’s customer services by broadening the hours staff are available to assist members. Moreover, since flexible working is considered a great perk by employees, employers who implement flexible working can attract more competitive and capable talent, regardless of their place of residence.

Flexible working is not without its importance to society. First, less people commuting means less traffic congestion and lower carbon emissions. Second, flexible work arrangements can potentially help alleviate gender discrimination in the workplace. Although women are just as competent in the workplace as their male counterparts, their career prospects can be impeded by maternity leave and the childcare responsibilities that follow. By allowing your employees to assume a work arrangement that accommodates familial obligations, moms do not have to sacrifice their careers, and dads will not miss out on all of the family fun (as well as the obligations).

Of course, flexible working does not cure everything and does have some potential side effects. One key challenge is to make sure that work is done effectively, since management may have less control over what their employees are doing. It is also important to keep employees connected to each other, maybe through more team-building activities, since they are not meeting as frequently.

On the other hand, research shows that some people may experience one or more of the three types of intensification of work due to flexible working — which means employees end up working too much with less hours.

  • Imposed intensification can happen when the workload is not adjusted appropriately for reduced work hours, or when remote workers seek recognition or importance.
  • Enabled intensification is tricky. For example, people who work at home save commuting time and experience fewer distractions. As a result, people are more productive and end up working more than they should.
  • Intensification of work can also happen as an act of reciprocation, which means employees feel obligated to work harder in exchange for the benefits they are getting.

Although these intensification efforts are much-appreciated, this can be fatiguing in the long term and backfire into an unfavorable situation.

Now, this whole thing sounds a little too complicated, especially since different industries, businesses and professions do not work in exactly the same way. Is there a rule of thumb on how to implement flexible working, then? Yes, and no. Just like the saying “change is the only constant,” always listen to what employees need, while regularly monitoring their levels of productivity and well-being. Then make adjustments accordingly. It would be nice not to have to even think about how to make your employees happy when they are doing work for you, because it turns out they are already happy.

Sunny Wang is a graduate assistant at the HFTP Americas Research Center and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in hospitality management at the University of Houston, graduating in May 2018. Wang was the vice president of the HFTP Polytechnic University student chapter. She is also the first recipient of the John Cahill Hospitality Technology Research Assistantship established by HFTP at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston.

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