Q: I’d like to have a better work–life balance. I’ve heard a lot about flexible working lately; what is it and what rights do I have?
A: Flexible working has become a major workplace revolution in recent years. In the UK, for example, every employee now has the right to ask their employer for a flexible working arrangement, and more and more employers are seeing the benefits of flexible working.
And it’s not just for the benefit of employees: employers gain by being able to recruit and retain the staff they need. If an organisation has invested in an employee – training them for example – it makes sense to hold on to them. By being flexible and nurturing talent, employers build a bond of trust with employees, which benefits them both.
Some types of flexible working allow an employer to provide better customer service by extending business interactions outside normal office hours. For an employer, the focus is on your output rather than your physical presence in the office or lab.
Green issues have also played a major role in shifting the culture towards flexible working. We all know the horrors of the daily commute – the frustration of wasted time on choc-a-bloc trains, buses and roads as everyone tries to get to the same place at the same time. The amount of energy that’s wasted as cars idle in traffic jams doesn’t bear thinking about, so it makes sense to use that time and energy more wisely. If you work at home for some or all of the time you reduce your commuting time and travelling expenses considerably, and with the revolution in communication technology, work no longer needs to be confined to the office or lab.
Is it for me?
Flexible working patterns can take many forms – the most common are:
- Working from home some or all of the time
- Working school term-time only
- Job sharing
- Working part time
- Changing or compressing working hours
- Working outside traditional office hours
- Flexi time, for example working extra hours and ‘banking’ them
Most people have wi-fi at home and your employer can provide you with equipment, such as a networked laptop, which allows you to access your email account and documents at home. A lot of business is done electronically, so having access to email and possibly a dedicated mobile phone for work means that your connection with colleagues and customers is unaffected by your location.
Also, with the prevalence of open offices and other shared spaces at work, peace and quiet is not always easy to find. Working at home can provide a better environment for research, reading, writing and reflecting.
However, there are drawbacks to consider. While some quiet time is usually welcome, too much time working at home can leave you feeling excluded and disconnected from decision making. It can also prevent you from networking effectively with colleagues and spotting areas for co-working and collaboration. Video conferences, remote meeting software and facilities like Skype are useful tools if you work remotely so that you can be involved in meetings and take part in real-time discussions or updates with your manager and your colleagues.
Self-discipline can also be a problem. Your home may not have the office bustle but it has its own distractions, and it’s easy to let your concentration wander. There are various strategies that you should use to develop a professional mindset when you are working off-site. Make sure you have a dedicated work space at home with minimal distractions, and write a list of things you have to do and work through them, just as you would if you were in the office.
Dividing your time between work and home is very effective if you make the most of the differences. Schedule meetings on the days you’re on-site and write-ups of those meetings for when you’re at home, for example.
Fair day’s pay?
Most flexible working options won’t usually affect your salary, but obviously part-time working comes with an inevitable drop in income. However, there may be times in your life when the trade-off is worth it – for example, if you have caring responsibilities, or perhaps later in your career when having leisure time is more important. Part-time working also allows you to develop other interests and maybe do some self-employed work.
For some people, flexible working will never be practical because of the nature of their work, but for many it is becoming commonplace. If you feel it could work for you, check your employer’s policy to see what options are available, build a case for yourself and talk to your line manager. And remember: even if you have the right to request flexible working, employers have the right to refuse it.