Flexible working – how can we improve?

Often, flexible working practices don’t improve work life balance. An important new book explores the challenges around flexible working and how employers can help make it better.

Flexible working working at home

Smiling woman reading a text message on a mobile phone as she sits working on a laptop in a home office during the Covid-19 pandemic

How can we go about improving flexible working?

All too often, flexible working fails to provide people with a better work life balance. But why is this? That is the question asked – and answered – by a new book, offering academic insights into this phenomenon.

Overworking homeworkers, part-timers working almost full-time hours and an inability to switch off are just some of the ways that flexible workers are suffering.

The Flexibility Paradox by Professor Heejung Chung from the University of Kent, explores the phenomenon of flexible working pre and post Covid. It examines the demand, prevalent trends, and the business case vs the employee case. The flexibility paradox, which particularly affects women, is partly the result of stigma around flexible working.

When work-life balance is the problem…

Professor Chung’s main argument is that the problem of work-life balance is not flexible working. So more flexible working won’t necessarily fix it. She says the main barrier to work life balance is the underlying structural factors that guide our behaviour, our gender norms and how we view work.

A fascinating point she raises is that our whole lives are viewed through the lens of work, including our social lives.“Flexible working is merely an amplifier,” she states.

For Professor Chung, there are many factors creating this mental pressure around work. Firstly, much of it is insecure and we have little negotiating power. But more importantly, there is a growing emphasis on loving your work and the ’ideal worker’ culture. There is a clear message that ‘work comes first’ and if you don’t sacrifice everything to it you are considered uncommitted or not passionate about your work.

Chung writes: “Workers are expected to work very long hours to pursue a passion, because your work now needs to be your passion. Our culture is one where increasingly we are expected to be passionate about our jobs and made to think that we are the curators of our own destinies – that is, entrepreneurs of our own careers.”

That is why, she says, flexible working often leads to overwork and the blurring of boundaries between work and home life.

Inequality across professions

For women there is another issue: that female-dominated professions like health and education have different parameters. They are less likely to have access to flexible working and are generally paid less. At the same time, there is still the cultural expectation that women do most of the unpaid work at home.

In addition, this is a time when what we expect from parenting has become more intense. That means women are often forced to reduce their hours and take lower paid jobs, which attract a flexibility stigma. “How can they be committed? They only work part time.”

Meanwhile, for men, flexible working – if they can get it – often means longer hours and pressure to conform more to the ‘ideal worker’ model. The result is that gender inequalities are exacerbated.

Remote working isn’t necessarily flexible

Professor Chung says that while Covid has seen a greater take-up of flexible working with work life balance benefits for some, it seems to have encouraged a certain type of flexible working. Remote working can result in an emphasis on longer hours and on working when sick.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, she argues. In cultures where work is not so central and where progressive gender norms prevail, there tends to be better access to flexible working. In these settings, family-friendly policies lead to widespread uptake.

The problem is, says Professor Chung, that much of the research on flexible working has been conducted in the US and UK where the ideal working culture and traditional gender norms are prevalent.

The solution: changes in expectation

What is needed, she states, is a change in how we measure productivity and commitment and how we view caring responsibilities. There are a number of ways to improve work-life balance for flexible workers, which include:

  • driving more uptake of flexible working
  • a legal basis for workers to decide when and where they work
  • legal guarantees of sufficient time to rest
  • compensation for homeworking costs
  • ‘good worker’ role models,
  • less stigma around overworking
  • work life balance satisfaction as a KPI for managers

Professor Chung concludes by saying that we need to hold out against the cultural norm around ‘busyness.’ We embrace it as a badge of honour, but doing so may encourage “a continuous spiral of increased competition – not only about ourselves, but for others who may not have the liberty nor the job security to resist this trend”.

“Deliberate rest can be an act of social justice,” she says.

*The Flexibility Paradox: why flexible working leads to (self-)exploitation by Heejung Chung is published by Policy Press.

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