Why Job Flexibility Is The Secret To Career Wellbeing

Posted November 4, 2013, by Marni Williams

In 1930, philosopher John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological innovation would lead to a 15-hour work week. Sounds a bit utopian in retrospect, right? Anthropologist David Graeber from the London School of Economics has suggested that this could in fact have been a reality by now, if only we hadn’t filled our time with administrative inefficiencies and unrealistic expectations.

We now average between 40-49 hours a week at the grindstone – around three times more than the Keynesian ideal. What’s more, a huge 50 per cent of employees surveyed by recruitment giant Hays said working shorter hours would make them professionally and personally happier than if they'd won the lottery!

This might surprise you, but data from polling organisation Gallup backs it up: their research shows that careers are the biggest factor in our overall wellbeing, and that’s on top of all the other wellbeing factors – social, financial, physical and community. So if our careers affect our happiness so much, then what about flexible work? Shouldn’t it be the next best thing to working less?

Whether you have caring commitments, want more time for your health or social life, or you need space to try something new, like starting your own business or going back to study, a flexible arrangement is probably sounding really good right about now – and let’s face it, it’s definitely more achievable than winning the lottery.

What are the options?

Sadly, 74 per cent of workers surveyed by Hays were not being rewarded with extra pay or time off in lieu when they worked overtime. In contrast, flexible working arrangements acknowledge the time you work, without tying you to a rigid schedule. Here are some examples:

  • Flextime – working core hours, say between 11am and 3pm, but with flexible times outside of that, approved as long as a daily, weekly or monthly quota of hours is met; many employers, including the Australian federal public service, also allow accumulated overtime to be exchanged for equivalent time off
  • Telecommuting/flexplace – working away from the office, typically at home, and sometimes with a mix between the two
  • Compressed work weeks – working more hours over fewer days in the week
  • Reduced work/job-sharing – this can include reducing your workload or sharing it with another colleague so that you can work part-time

Aren’t flexible hours just for mothers?

Hays says men are just as likely as women to use certain types of flexible working arrangements – but men prefer the options that keep face-time, such as flextime or the compressed work week. Women are more likely to work outside of the office.

According to Hays, high-potential employees whose companies do not offer flexible work options are less likely to aspire to top leadership roles. The top companies are listening and the public sector is already working towards a teleworking target of 12 per cent of its workforce by 2020.

Does big business really believe in flexibility?

For some businesses, the jury is still out. There has been a movement away from flexible work options by some major employers such as the Bank of America and Yahoo, but of course this is likely to vary depending on the type and size of the company.

Positive examples do appear to be growing, however, and there is definitely greater acceptance from employers. One convert is Adidas Australia. Their return rate from parental leave doubled in a two-year period once they implemented a flexible workplace culture, saving the company more than three-quarters of a million dollars in recruitment and training costs.

This has been backed up by a study by Australian School of Business associate professor Julie Cogin. Her study shows a positive impact on a number of objective business performance measures, including customer service results and net profits. In other words, flexible work is not just feel-good – it can be good business, too.

Possible benefits for employers:

  • Attraction and retention of highly skilled staff who may have other projects or who may not wish to work full-time on-site
  • Improved staff morale and motivation
  • Reduced operating costs with fewer people in-house full-time
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Workers can be more focused as they carefully manage their time and delivery goals
  • Ability to cater to an ageing workforce and the retention of highly knowledgeable long-term staff

Every month seems to bring more evidence that our wellbeing is directly linked to our capacity to grasp that ever-elusive state of work–life balance. Greater links are made each day between poor mental health and a lack of control over work hours. With workplace arrangements having such a significant impact on our lives, it appears that getting more flexibility isn’t just a utopian ideal; it’s a necessity.

Here are some tips on negotiating flexible working hours with your employer

Marni Williams

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