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A question of time – Part II

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How does employee work-time flexibility impact performance?

What do flourishing financial lands like Switzerland, Germany and UK all have in common, besides a revered economic reputation? They all battle for work flexibility.

This is why, after having debunked the media myth that the six-hour work day is the new norm in Sweden, it’s time to talk about time again. But this time, we will shift the focus from work duration to another dimension: flexibility. What is trust-based work and why do major players of the European realm advocate for it so enthusiastically?

Work duration versus flexibility

The media went berserk this year for the fairy-tale-like news that Sweden implemented a reduced work-day, even if the measure was only adopted by a handful of small entities, mostly in the form of trials.

However, the news that since 2014, in the UK, the government has granted employees the legal right to request a flexible working schedule didn’t really reached the headlines. Moreover, the directive applies to all employees, not just to parents and caretakers. The only requirement is that the person making the request has to have worked for at least 26 weeks for the same employer.

Even if a flexible working schedule doesn’t sound as bewitching as a shorter one, studies show that adjustable working hours are certainly beneficial for both the employee and organization. While international rankings show that some of the most prosperous and productive countries are countries where employees work less than average, an indisputable link between work reduction and increased profitability has yet to be drawn.

Even for employees, it is not certain whether a shorter schedule is beneficial, as we already covered in our first part.

When it comes to flexibility however, experts worldwide are more focused on studying its bilateral benefits than spending time theorizing if the idea itself is good or not. The research synthesis paper published by the International Labor Office (ILO), Geneva, is an informational pot of gold as far this subject is concerned, covering the “broadest possible range of relevant literature” from all around the globe, developing and developed countries alike.

One of the most important aspects of the work-time versus flexibility dynamic is the fact that, when talking about individuals, it is more often not the actual number of work hours per se that affects performance, but the discrepancy between the desired and demanded work schedule. This means that the hours worked matter less than the degree to which individuals are free to pursue their working time preferences.

This occurrence can be linked to the psychological concept of reactance. The phenomenon occurs due to our tendency to preserve our personal freedom by possessing as many options as possible. Restricting a person’s freedom in regards to something might lead to an opposite reaction and the person might act in a completely contrary way to how the external influencing force was expecting.

In a regulated environment such as the workplace, this opposite reaction is not possible, but employees might still experience adverse emotional reactions. And this is precisely why employees should be given the possibility to voice their opinions on their work schedule and not be barred off from even expressing the simplest remark. Remember, communication is the key to success in today’s business environment.

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Schedule flexibility – But why?

First of all, flexibility comes in many shapes, varying from freedom as far as the workday start and end are concerned, to complete employee autonomy over the time when and place where work tasks are performed. Some concrete measures include working time accounts, flexitime, telecommuting or compressed workweeks.

Flexitime is a system whereby an employee’s work hours can vary, as long as a core-time period is respected. The compressed workweek includes the classic 40-hour work norm, distributed among fewer days. Telecommuting simply refers to remote work while working time accounts, also called time banking, rely – as the name suggests- on treating time as a currency: employees can “save up” hours by working more or, on the contrary, “take a time credit” and compensate later on by working overtime.

As far as the benefits of implementing such a system are concerned, an important part of Europe seems to be favoring them. Besides the already cited sources from UK and Switzerland, Germany as well seems to fully embrace the idea, given that experts from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy claim that “results based on propensity score matching techniques comparing ex ante similar firms that adopt VAZ [trust based working hours] and those that do not, show that firms adopting VAZ tend to be between 11 to 14 percent more likely to improve their products.”.

The cited ILO paper offers quite a multitude of reasons to increase work-time flexibility. First of all, these agreements are linked to a significant higher productivity rate because employees make a greater effort to succeed in their tasks, as compensation for their freedom and are way more grateful for the supportive environment. For instance, the paper quotes a 2011 study where workers with a flexible schedule averaged 17 more worked hours per week than those with fixed hours.

Furthermore, flexible work-arrangements generally also:

  • Have positive effects on work/ life satisfaction and employee engagement
  • Decrease work misbehavior such as absenteeism, tardiness and unauthorized sick leave
  • Improve employee health and well-being without raising labor costs
  • Save hidden costs related to job dissatisfaction and human capital investment
  • Increase the recruitment of new employees by increasing the organization’s attractiveness as an employer
  • Improve the recruitment of professionals without exceeding the company’s internal pay scale
  • Keep employee turnover rates low by nurturing high job satisfaction levels
  • Can be presented as fringe benefits
  • Could be offered as bonuses for individual productivity improvements, which is a reliable reward regardless of the firm’s financial means

There are, however, some downsides to employees administering their working time and place. Although such arrangements can increase individual productivity, as a reaction of gratitude towards the newly-acquired freedom of action, this reaction can sometimes spill over, leading to excessive overtime, blurry lines between professional and personal life, burn-out, social isolation, depression and even higher stress levels, since technology today can potentially ensure practically unlimited employee availability.

All in all, granting employees the freedom of administering their own working schedule and even working place has been proven to be quite beneficial, as shown by the aforementioned studies. Reorienting the focus on tasks towards results, rather than location and the necessary time to accomplish them, is quickly becoming a strategy that leads to harvesting more and more golden apples.

Technological advancement has unquestionably changed life as most of us knew it. Our world is now surrounded by etheric digital walls and bridges which were built so fast that we have yet to learn how to optimally climb and cross them.

The Internet has started to erase the frontier between work and personal time, towards the creation of a 24-hour society. However, we mustn’t be blinded by the fact that technology is a tool, and as is true with every tool, it is only beneficial to its user if he handles it the right way.

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