Flexible working and the working week - some musings

Changes to flexible working rules to extend the right to request this to all employees, not just those with caring responsibilities, were expected to come into force in April but have been postponed until June. This news prompted us to think about flexible working - how it blurs the lines between work and non-work time and with what consequences. In some cases, working more flexibly could mean working more as the notion of acceptable working hours and places becomes more fluid. In light of this, should UK companies, and could they, be doing more to regulate the amount of time their employees spend working?

The working day for a lot of people no longer finishes when they leave the office. Particularly in certain sectors – Finance and Law, for example  – workers will continue receiving emails in the evenings, at weekends and even when they are on holiday (if they do indeed take them) and contrary to what you might expect, this is not always unwelcome. Recent research from Oxford University has highlighted the emergence of a new class of ‘super workers’ who choose to work long hours as they find work more enjoyable and rewarding than leisure time. In both the UK and US, commentators have noted that being busy, and even overworked, has become an established status symbol.

While working, or at least “being in work mode”, for longer periods is likely to improve responsiveness, does it actually improve efficiency? The majority of research suggests that it only does to a point, and actually in the majority of cases, longer working hours produce no increase in efficiency and sometimes have a detrimental effect on it due to more mistakes being made and workers slowing their pace.

Beyond the impact on companies’ productivity, there is the actual wellbeing of the workforce to consider – their health, family life, and general happiness. Employers in some other European countries would argue that there is a lot to be gained from controlling working hours – with a better work/life balance, workers are less stressed and in better health, meaning absenteeism is reduced, and the quality of work produced is better. In France, many companies maintain a 35 hour working week, and new rules means that workers in the technology and digital industries are barred from contacting colleagues before 9am and after 6pm (with some exceptions), and in the Netherlands, many work part-time or a four day week. Meanwhile, in Gothenburg in Sweden, council workers are working a six-hour day in a year-long trial to see whether shorter working days are a good idea.

Aside from the benefits already mentioned, there is an argument that shorter work hours reduce unemployment as the work is spread out among more people. Plus, there are the environmental benefits…

All this sounds great, so why aren’t UK companies following suit? Is it just that we’re more driven, or depending on your viewpoint, addicted to work, than our European counterparts? Are we more similar to the US than Europe in this aspect?

Well, there are also some drawbacks. As mentioned, there is the responsiveness issue, but also the fact that in an increasingly globalised world, we need to be available to correspond with individuals across different time zones.

Some would argue that emails are much less intrusive than calls and workers who want to keep strict working hours can just ignore any messages sent out of hours. However, they may risk their reputation and standing by doing so, which leads on to the fact that short working hours are difficult for companies to enforce. It is unlikely to work unless it is embraced wholeheartedly by everyone and for this to happen would involve a cultural shift for many UK companies.

It will be interesting to see whether developments in Europe result in the working hours debate achieving more prominence in the UK, and whether it will have an effect on the reality of “flexible working”.