Cary Cooper: Flexible working should be open to everyone

Thanks to the fact nearly two out of three families are now ‘two-earners’ and the UK has a ‘long working-hours culture’, the issue of flexible working has gained HR and political traction of late.

The arguments for: it provides employees with more control, transmits trust, allows for a better work-life balance and even has a positive effect on the environment.

The long list of benefits makes Yahoo’s recent decision to ban working from home even more surprising.

A line published from a leaked memo informing employees of the new requirement to be in the office says: “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

Those opposing flexible working argue that it undermines team building and inhibits an innovative and collaborative culture. They also say trust can be abused by employees, that managing people who are working more remotely is time-consuming and that managers find it difficult to deal with urgent complicated problems at work.

But what does the science of organisational psychology say? The research shows, on balance, that those who choose to work flexibly are more satisfied and productive, have fewer sickness absence days, and so on.

So, why are some organisations not encouraging flexible working, even though their HR strategy may include the right to request it? Partly, it’s because many line managers are reluctant to allow flexible working, even when the company itself has a menu of potential flexible options. Many managers want their troops in an office so they can see what they are up to and can call meetings spontaneously. The reality as well is that many managers just don’t trust their staff to do their job if they are working remotely, or don’t know how to manage them in this context.

To overcome this, managers have to be able to set more clear-cut objectives, monitor outcomes and use more ICT/social media and the like. We need to train managers to understand the value of flexible working not just as a vehicle to enable people to achieve greater work-life balance, but also because it delivers to the bottom line in terms of performance and a more engaged workforce.

Incidentally, flexible working shouldn’t just be for those employees with children; it should be open to all, where practicable. The Government Office for Science’s Foresight project on ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing’ found that the benefit-to-cost ratio was substantially larger when all employees had ‘the right to request flexible working’. This organisational justice also demands that those who are single or childless, or who have eldercare responsibilities, should not be disadvantaged.

Speaking about flexible working at the Good Day at Work conference last year, business psychologist Matt Smeed outlined the divisions that can occur in workforces. “Flexible working is very much seen as a positive for those in lower grades, those frontline workers who typically don’t have as much access to flexible working initiatives as other groups,” he said. “As you move up the wage structure, the challenge is to manage work-life balance, and flexible working is accepted as the norm by many.”

Technology enables us to work more flexibly, but as Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, many people resist change: “There is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes.”

Cary Cooper is distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. He is ranked second in the 2013 HR Most Influential UK Thinkers list