Challenges of flexible working for workers, managers, and organisations

Workplace Behaviour Research Centre
Socio-Technical Centre

Professor Chia-Huei Wu is Chair in Organisational Psychology. He studies proactive behaviour, personality development, work design, overqualification and employees' subjective well-being. Dr Linhao Fang is a researcher in Information Systems and is working on the Adapting Offices for the Future of Work project. Hannah Collis is a Researcher in Occupational and Organisational Psychology at Leeds University Business School and a Member of the British Psychological Society. Her research explores individual differences and wellbeing at work, specifically looking at how the workplace interacts with and influences personality and wellbeing over time, and what this means for work behaviours and performance.

Group meeting in modern office

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased workers’ and organisations’ interests in flexible working which enables workers to decide what, when, how, and where to work. 

In an ESRC-funded project on adapting offices for the future of work, results of a ‘snapshot’ survey (a short questionnaire to give an overview of what the current situation is) from a representative group of UK employees show that around 30% had a formal ‘flexi’ work policy in place. This ranged from having the freedom to choose start and finish times around ‘core’ hours, to having complete flexibility over work hours as long as contracted hours were met, to complete freedom to work whenever, as long as the job tasks were completed. While flexible working empowers workers’ autonomy, it can bring challenges to workers, front-line managers, and organisations.

For workers, while having flexibility could contribute to their well-being (for example, being able to achieve a better work-life balance by spreading out their working hours so they can also fit in childcare responsibilities, dog-walking, exercise etc.), it also gives them the added responsibility of managing their own workload, from daily activities to long-term career development. 

However, having flexibility means that workers need to know what they want to achieve before deciding what (e.g. contents of tasks), when (e.g. time-scheduling), how (e.g. methods or tools) and where (e.g. office, home or other locations) to work. 

While we usually assume workers would welcome flexible work polices, we cannot ignore that workers vary in their preference for autonomy, with not all workers appreciative of having the responsibility of determining their own work activities. To some employees, the choices they were given about autonomy can cause a sense of uncertainty. Moreover, for those who have just entered the labor market or a new profession, they would need to know the norm in their work context before knowing how to arrange their work activities. Flexible working can bring not only freedom to workers, but also a burden in deciding what, when, how and where to work. 

For managers, flexible working is challenging not only because they need to coordinate requests from different workers (e.g. preference for working within an office against occupancy levels), but also because they will not know how to respond or what to give to support their workers when workers do not know what they want from a flexible work environment. The pressure put on managers is often compounded from above too. 

Organisations need to be mindful about how flexible working could affect the relationship between workers and the organisation. Compared to the traditional work approach where employees are co-located within the same physical space, flexible working means that people may not always be “together” to complete common tasks, which may reduce opportunities to develop a sense of “we” at the work team or organisational level. 

While workers may desire organisations that offer flexible work environments, having a mindset focusing on individualised needs can dilute the worker’s sense of organisational identity (seeing themself as a member of the organisation). As such, one challenge that organisations could face in the flexible work environment is the reduction of a sense of collectivity among workers. This can have a negative implication on performance at a collective (such as a team or organisational) level.  

While flexible working can bring benefits such as protecting workers’ well-being, it also brings challenges for workers, managers, and organisations that should not be overlooked. In the project - Adapting Offices for the Future of Work - the research team at the University of Leeds investigates how different flexible working arrangements impact social networks, workflow and performance by studying employees in adapted offices. Visit the project webpage for further information.

This project - Adapting offices to support COVID-19 secure workplaces and emerging work patterns - is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.


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