Flexible work has multiple connotations and means a lot of different things to different people. However it is generally used to describe work options that allow paid work to be accomplished outside the traditional temporal and/or spatial boundaries of a standard eight to five work day. Examples of Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs) include: flexible starting and finishing time (also known as flexitime), the possibility of working from home or elsewhere (also known as Telework or Spatial Flexibility), working part time or on reduced hours; and job sharing amongst others.
If you think that flexible work is the new in- thing, you may be in for a little surprise.
The ability to adapt and flex work, and the possibility of integrating paid work with family has served us extremely well for millennia. In fact, right up until the 18th century, the majority of men and women worked together from home (or close to home) and were involved in small trades or farming, using hand tools or basic machinery. This enabled families to raise their children and earn a living with much flexibility and little interference from others.
Then, with the advent of the industrial revolution, the idea of integrating paid work with family was shattered. This gave rise to the idea that paid work and family are two distinct and separate spheres and that work must be done away from home at a particular time and place. Whilst the grim employment conditions linked to the industrial revolution have thankfully changed, some of the values we adopted since then still linger on and affect us negatively. In fact, most of us still jump into our cars every morning and spend the best part of the day at work. When the workday is over, we then choke the streets with cars again and this ritual is repeated for most of our adult life, leaving us little time for family or leisure or friends. Yet we rarely stop and ask ourselves whether this is the type of life we want. Whilst women generally make, or are obliged to make, changes to their work pattern when they become mothers, few men feel they have the option, or the luxury to work flexibly. This means that for the majority, work remains a rather static notion.
Thanks to the digital revolution, those who work through ICT can now work remotely from anywhere they deem fit. Spatial flexibility shatters the idea that work is something we go to, and instead re-introduces the idea (from pre-industrial times) that work is something we do. Of course, it is essential to acknowledge that not all work can be done remotely and that implementing flexible work can raise challenges both to employers and to the employees. However, the biggest challenge and resistance generally stems from outdated ideas linked to the notion of the ‘ideal workers’. These are expected to spend long hours at their desk at the office and to prioritise paid work over all the other aspects of their personal life, including family. In doing so, it is often assumed that long working hours and visibility at the office will automatically equate to added productivity - which is not always the case.
Flex work has been gaining importance and studies have consistently been showing that young people, especially Millennials, are choosing flexible work over long term security and higher salaries. Innovative and flexible work places also attract talented workers and help employers retain valuable employees, who may otherwise leave if they are too stressed. There is much to be gained if employers challenge the outdated ways of working and look for innovative ways of working, where flexibility is not the exception, but becomes the norm.
What are we waiting for to make this essential paradigm shift about work and the rest of life?
Contributing Author Dr. Anna Borg - firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Anna Borg (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta. She is an expert in the matters relating to the labour market and Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA’s). She also currently acts as the Maltese expert on the European Social Policy Network (ESPN) of the European Union.
In her past work she was responsible for managing the EU Educational and Vocational Programme-Leonardo Da Vinci in Malta and was a Project Leader for various Trans-European Social Fund (ESF) projects related to Gender Equality and the labour market. She also managed the Gender Equality Unit at the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) for a number of years and chaired the Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations (MCWO).
More recently she also worked as a reporter and editor for the European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) and the European Restructuring Monitor (ERM) of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Euorofound), which is based in Dublin.