13 March 2013

The flexible working debate: pros and cons

As highlighted in yesterday’s post, flexible working has the potential to save businesses money. The topic has been brought into the spotlight again after Yahoo’s chief executive officer (CEO) Marissa Mayer announced a ban from working from home in the firm.

We take a look at the pros and cons of implementing flexible working patterns in the office and look at why it’s become a more popular option for employers and employees alike.

Flexible working a response to the recession

A recent report by the Confederation of British Industry found that the most popular response to the recession was to increase the use of flexible working. The study  found that more than two thirds of employers had increased flexible working (50%) or intended to in the near future (30%). The economic downturn created a need for businesses to move with the tide, taking on more staff and cutting back to meet changes in demand that become far more sporadic during a recession.

Another factor in the demand for flexible working is the rise of the digital economy.  The BYOD (bring your own device) culture has certainly penetrated the business environment, with 88% of executives saying employees use personal devices for work and a similar number of firms are already implementing policies on bringing personal devices into the workplace.

There is also a burgeoning market that enables flexibility in the workplace. Videoconferencing, web chats,  temporary offices, virtual offices and business centre facilities have all contributed in allowing businesses to operate more freely, with many such services experiencing rapid uptake since the economic downturn struck.

Just what is flexible working?

According to the Department for Work and Pensions, flexible working encompasses a range of options, including:

  • part time working
  • job sharing
  • flexible hours
  • compressed hours
  • term-time working
  • working from home
  • varying start and finish times.

The term has come to be used in a manner of ways, and is best defined in a the more wider context of “the range of flexible working practices available by moving away from traditional perceptions of work”.

Pros of flexible working

Mobile giant Vodafone recently released a report that found firms could save hundreds and thousands of pounds a year if they simply freed up desk space and embraced flexible working. Their study revealed that most senior staff measure success by results rather than time spent in the office, and although some firms are still routed to the idea of conventional desk conditions, this is likely to change as the advantages of a freer workforce become more clear. See yesterday’s post for more information.

Common advantages of implementing flexible working include:

  • Improved productivity: it allows people to work when they accomplish most, feel freshest and enjoy working.
  • Increased efficiency: it reduces office distractions.
  • A happier workforce: flexible working allows people to meet personal obligations as well as reducing employee burnout due to overload.
  • Cost savings: from a business perspective, savings can be made in terms of electricity and the general space needed for having an extra employee in the office or work environment. From a workers perspective, costs on the commute and possibly child care can be substantially reduced.

Cons of flexible working

It’s probably best to look Miss Mayer’s reasoning here, considering that she is the head of a global technology corporation. Her argument is that companies shouldn’t offer flexible working simply because it has come into fashion in the past ten or 15 years. Engagement without accountability can be disastrous for firm, and they should ensure they are getting the best results from their employees if they are to grant them more freedom.

The most commonly cited cons of flexible work practices include:

  • Accountability: if employees don't remain accountable, the whole system can fall down. Flexible hours and remote locations empower the worker to manage their time effectively, but some firms worry that people can take advantage of this arrangement.
  • Security: BYOD and working on remote computers is potentially a security threat for firms, as more data is passed around outside their control. Ensuring that the right measures are put in place is essential.
  • Team spirit: flexible working suits individuals, but doesn’t always work for the team. If staff are away from the office more than they are in, it can be much harder to create a good company vibe.

Do you agree with Marissa Mayer? Tweet us your opinion.