The psychological power of flexible working

I am writing a book about women in work. It’s looking at issues around being a woman in a tech environment, how technology is forcing us to reflect on why the way we work needs to change and why we’re in this weird halfway point where no-one is really winning; we can’t go back to the way we were but going forward seems to be really irritating many bosses who decry that flexibility is unworkable. For some industries it is, but that shouldn’t leave the vast majority of workers without the option and the right of flexibility.

I’m going to share a few chapters as they’re written and first here’s a little of my chapter on flexible working and its psychological impact. What are we looking for when we want to work in a flexible way? Do let me know what you think …..

I flex therefore I am….

Flexibility in work and a greater move towards it should be one of the main concerns of every worker, wherever they are. It is easy to decry that such a position is naive or simplistic. Not everyone can work flexibly, business can be damaged by demands for flexible working.

Yet the principal ills of our working culture are being fuelled by a resolute desire to stiffle flexibility. The biggest challenge women face in securing work equality is the lack of flexibility. One if five women may be childfree but that still leaves the majority that are mothers and it is in all of our interests (yes men’s too) to create workplaces that don’t just tentatively nod to welcoming women into them but avowedly hold the door open wide. This isn’t just a challenge for men but for women as well. There is all too frequently a desire to pit women against each other, whether mothers, non-mothers, young or old. If we want to move away from a culture that tells people how they should be living their lives as a weapon of control (and I’m guessing most people do) the only way that will happen is by actively working together to promote change. And if that means undermining and revolutionising a business culture that makes it difficult for mothers to feel they can confidently care to all of their needs then so be it. Life should not be about sacrifice.

This is all about control …..

This is all about control. Our need, our desire, to effect control over our lives green shoots itself all over our culture. We are so desperate to have a voice – a voice being control and recognition – that we actively construct a narrative to ensure people point their fingers towards us, whether positively or negatively. Posting pictures of incredibly intimate moments, seeking confirmation(absolution?) that we are doing the right thing through likes, RTs and appreciation. It is a wild response to a sense that we have little control to construct the lives that will truly make us happy.

A lack of flexibility is at the core of this. Flexibility should be for everyone, not just women or parents or carers. Everyone. It should be the basic tenant of our professional lives. We operate in a business culture at least 150 years out of date. The working day, the 9 to 5 is grossly out of step with both the needs of a global world and reality. Despite our increasing moves into offices, into a new form of uniform, the smart casual, we are still, by and large, the workers at a very long string of power with someone else at the very far end. The apposite defines our hours, how we should dress, when we should get up, when we should get home, how difficult our commute is, how many holidays we should get, how long compassionate leave should be when a loved one dies, how we should behave on social media. We fawn a semblance of control and independence. In truth we have little.

Increasingly the complaint from workers is the 24/7 culture. The need to be constantly tethered to an electronic device. The expectation to respond to the bosses entreaties whenever and wherever. The counter culture that calls on us to ignore our electronic devices when we are on holiday – legally ours, which we have worked and paid for – is almost apologetic. Such is our thrall to the boss.

Our umbilical connection to the office wears us out …

The Energy Project attempts to map this impact on the average joe. We are heading, they warn, towards an energy crisis simple because “the way we work isn’t working”. On average we are working longer hours linked to the office umbilically. This is making us more tired, it is making us less loyal to employers, more frustrated, less creative, less forward thinking. Our work life balance is, essentially, utterly screwed.

Anyone can, now, request flexible working. This might include a job split or working from home, going part-time, working compressed hours or having flexitime, annualised or staggered hours or phased retirement. Yet employees can only make one statutory application per year.

Businesses can reject each and every application. Of course an employee could take them to a tribunal and various business groups recoil in horror. Most workers are notoriously bad at raising the issue of pay, let alone taking a boss to a tribunal. The business can’t reject out of hand though, there must be a reason.

When the proposed changes to flexible working were introduced, widening the requests from just parents and carers to everyone, the response from many working groups was one of distinct disgruntlement. The British Chambers of Commerce said it would mean firms could be more likely to discriminate against parents and carers. The Federation of Small Business feared small firms could be crippled by multiple claims. Pitting employees against each other is a bad idea; employees shouldn’t be separated into parents/carers etc. Similarly small business owners are probably adept at analysing the multiple requests that come in from their employees and working out whether there is a commonality so they can please the many. They are managing a small business. If they fear paperwork then perhaps this isn’t the life choice they should have made.

Technology has already fundamentally shifted the approach of the young to working culture …

The problem is that coming fast behind us is a generation not hampered by the experience of having worked in a world without a 24/7 culture and technology to hand. The first radio station I worked in still used reel to reel. One of my tasks on work experience was to listen through to the old tapes and convert them to a digital format to see if there was anything worth keeping.

With this seismic shift young people will enter the world of work re-evaluating their relationship with business and culture. It is not our responsibility to pass on the outmoded behaviour that went before. The number of recent graduates registering as freelancers or micro business owners increased by 97% in 2013. The number of male graduate entrepreneurs was up 110% and female graduates up 94%.

Flexibility is the principal motivator for the start-up. We firmly align it in our minds with the idea of control and the ability to shape and mould our working lives to align with our passions, interests, talents and energy. This, we believe, empowers us to be more creative. In the left-wing media, interestingly, it is being lauded as symptomatic of the government’s failure to provide jobs for people. Demand and supply often means that people want to have more control; if the current system doesn’t allow that then if they can they will strike out on their own. This is itself is not a bad thing. It is when it is manipulated and these young people are seen as cheap labour that it is damaging and negative. To decry entrepreneurship as wholly bad teaches young people that the only way they can work is in the thrall of a boss in a traditional 9-5. This is not what the world of the future looks like.

Of course there is stress. It is a physical and mental response; when we worry too much we fog or overload our pre-frontal cortex. The writer of Choke has explained how a simple and rudimentary writing exercise can help us to work through our concerns, to enable us to identity what it is that is worrying us. Our processing power sits in this same part of our brain so when it is flooded with worry we cannot think as powerfully. We are, literally, overwhelming our brain’s processing power.

What does all this have with flexibility and being self-employed. We return to control. Flexibility can be about devoting a morning a week to creative thinking or forward planning. A planning morning focused on writing to do lists for the next big projects can help us to reduce stress. The self-employed are able to control their time much better, not looking over their shoulder for someone ensuring they are on the phone or sending emails, using cursory visual KPIs to ensure they are doing their job.

This isn’t about a driver of success. Many entrepreneurs define their success by their ability to cope with stress, to thrive on it. They see it as a recognition of their ability to turn a project round quickly, by the skin of their teeth. This ins’t the stress they are thriving from. Instead it is their mentality, their intellect. What they are saying, in fact, is “look how sharp and intelligent I truly am. I don’t need time to plan. I can rely on my wits”. We return to the naval gazing image of the entrepreneur.

We are all Job …

But it isn’t stress that empowers them. It is control. Many entrepreneurs still have to check emails at 9pm but they feel a greater sense of control over them, because they’re fulfilling many of the other core needs in their working lives that the Energy Project lays out. If none of those are met and the email is from your full time boss we fear failure. You are only as good as your last response. Similarly the fear of posting something we truly believe on a social network, of cultivating a public image and persona that we thinks fits with what a boss wants to see. We have little control even over how we appear to the world.

It is a biblical test; we are all Job. Coupled with a culture of continuous information and digital narcissism and we feel as though we are continuously on show. The constant updates on culture and news diminish our sense of longevity and stability. The ground can always shake beneath us.

Few of these things are going to go away. Unless we work in the top echelons of the media we cannot change it. Yet we need to be able to have a sense of exerting some kind of control. This is why it is so important for companies to embrace a greater degree of flexibility, to enable employees to work more like entrepreneurs. If you can work remotely, you should. If you need to block of a chunk of time for forward planning, why would you not. If you need to pick up young children from the nursery you should not be punished by being forced to work long into the evening to provide your loyalty (and your employees shouldn’t allow you to). Flexibility taps into our deepest need to feel that we can control the day that stretches before us. It makes us happier and more productive. No employer should have control over that.

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