In April 2020, almost 40% of EU workers worked from home, with certain countries such as Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands or Finland having more than 55% of remote workers. Though the Covid-19 pandemic has made flexible working truly flourish, the numbers have been on their way up over the years.
In the last decades, flexible working has been increasingly advocated as a tool to improve employee well-being, and we have seen it grow steadily. For instance, the part of the European workforce having flexible working time arrangements grew from 24% to 28% between 2010 and 2015. In addition, while less than 8% worked from home in 2009, 11% did in 2019.
In spite of its popularity, research evidence on the effects of flexible working on employee well-being is not so straightforward. Employee well-being is the general quality of an employee’s experience at work. It results from the continuous interaction between individual features, job characteristics, and the broader organizational context. One such job characteristic is flexible working.
While a number of studies find positive outcomes of flexible working for employees’ mental and physical well-being, others yield potentially concerning results. There is evidence to suggest that flexible workers face greater work intensification, have severe difficulty detaching from work, overwork themselves, and may suffer from increased stress and potential burnout. These mixed findings have a number of potential explanations that open the door to subsequent questions and research avenues.
To truly understand the potential of flexible working, three avenues remain to be explored: the difference between formal and informal flexible work arrangements, the lived experiences of flexible workers, and the role of context.
Formal vs. informal flexible working
Formal flexibility consists of written policies, which typically originate in HR departments. As a result, these policies are often homogeneous. The same practice may be available to individuals who hold different types of jobs and responsibilities, with differing personal situations and backgrounds. For example, a flexitime policy may allow all or large groups of employees to start work between 7.30 and 9.30 and finish between 4.30 and 6.30. A telework policy may enable entire departments to work from home a certain number of days per week. Most flexibility studies focus exclusively on formal practices because they are highly visible, thus easy to measure and keep track of.
On the contrary, informal flexibility consists of individually negotiated arrangements that emerge through one-on-one manager-employee discussions. For instance, even without a formal teleworking policy, employees may individually agree with their managers to work remotely, either regularly or for ad-hoc situations. Similarly, workers may not need a flexitime policy to take a longer lunch break to go to the gym if they negotiate how to make up for the time with their line manager.
These sorts of individualized arrangements are on the rise. Preliminary research suggests they may be more meaningful for employees than formal ones and have a stronger impact on employee well-being. Yet these arrangements often fly under HR’s radar and are rarely accounted for. Consequently, our knowledge on how flexible working affects employee well-being may be severely limited.
The lived experience of flexible workers
Flexible working practices are often presented as employee-centered. Most people see them as allowing employees to exercise choice over certain aspects of their jobs (specifically when, where, and how they work). However, it is also an employer-oriented tool that enables the company to adapt to changing environmental conditions and meet client demands. Flexible working may mean an employee can choose to work from home when his or her children cannot go to school but also that the employee works on Sunday to complete a deliverable on time. It is highly problematic to clearly classify organizational initiatives as organization- or employee-focused because they usually have a little of both. As a result, studies tend to either look at one side or the other, overlooking its counterpart.
One way to move forward is to ask employees how they actually experience flexible working.
Very little research has explored workers’ own understandings and interpretations. If it is not uniformly experienced as being employer or employee-oriented, when is it perceived as a perk or a detriment? Why may that perception change? How do people manage it? How does it evolve over time?
Understanding the influence of flexible working on well-being requires going beyond managerial and HR understandings of the practice. Instead, we must step into the workers’ shoes to investigate the phenomenon through the eyes of those who actually live through it.
The role of context in flexible working
Although seminal studies of flexible working were conducted exclusively in the US, in recent years, the growth of papers relying on international data sources has been exponential. Yet, studies looking at flexible working and its consequences provide little information on the context in which flexibility is adopted. We know that contextual elements, such as local culture and institutions, may influence the processes of implementation and dissemination of flexible working practices.
However, the extent to which the diverse unfolding of such processes influences employee well-being is in need of further exploration. For example, would the well-being of employees in a firm in Spain be affected by telework in the same way as that of workers in Sweden given that before the pandemic 5% of the workforce worked from home in the former in contrast to 34% in the latter? Is flexible working experienced similarly in the midst of generalized growth than in the course of an economic crisis? Can a multinational firm expect similar outcomes from the same policy in different geographical locations? Answering these questions requires looking at specific contexts as key transforming features rather than fixed background scenes.
Overall, there is still much we do not know about the connection between flexible working and employee well-being.
Here, I have outlined three possible avenues to develop knowledge that I am pursuing in collaboration with my colleague Argyro Avgoustaki, but there are others that also deserve attention. For instance, a new European Directive supporting the request of flexible work arrangements for working parents entered into force in 2019 whose consequences are yet to be analyzed. Several research initiatives are exploring how Covid-19 has changed the playing field, and how the brutal and unavoidable implementation of flexibility has affected workers and organizations.
It is clear that, while the pandemic may have given some companies the push they needed to adopt flexible working practices, much remains unanswered. To understand the benefits of flexible working and the potential drawbacks to be mitigated, we must fully explore contextual employee experiences.
Almudena’s research is carried out within the framework of the Reinventing Work Chair at ESCP.