Cary Cooper: There are two sides to flexibility

New underemployment figures hint at the polarising effects of flexibility without balance.

It’s one hundred years since celebrated US industrialist Henry Ford first introduced the standardised day with ‘eight hours to work, eight hours leisure, eight hours rest’ at his automobile factory in Michigan.

As flexible working, in all its forms, has taken on and evolved Ford’s vision, the anniversary is a good time to reflect on the defining idea of the nine-to-five: the need for balance.

Recently, the ONS released figures showing that 3.4 million people are underemployed in the UK – that is those who cannot get a full-time role or want more hours in their current job.

This is one side of the flexibility coin: new contract types and growing numbers of part-time and self-employed workers who, having powered the UK into economic recovery, are now looking for more.

So should we panic that millions of people aren’t getting the hours that they want and need?

Clearly, underemployment is the lesser of two evils – it’s no coincidence that unemployment has fallen by 400,000 in the same period since 2012.

With all the bad press that zero-hours contracts have received over the past year, when used in the right way they can create positive outcomes for employees and businesses who may not be able to survive without them. However, what the new underemployment figures do hint at are the polarising effects of flexibility without balance.

Individuals and employers have a joint responsibility and incentive to make flexibility work. For those people putting in 60 hours plus each week, the effect on levels of wellbeing and productivity in the long term can be damaging. Of course, it’s impossible, and wrong, to be prescriptive about how many hours people should aim to work, but we need an open debate about the impact of those working styles.

It’s a scenario that many big corporates have been re-assessing over the past six months, but it’s one that employees have to want to address too.

And, on the other side of the debate, where flexibility means part-time hours, businesses need to ensure that their model isn’t a false economy. The uncertainty of underemployment, while contributing to cost savings in the short term, can hit productivity and wellbeing levels too. This is a clear organisational risk, particularly in terms of sustainability, and that’s even before the debate has touched on ideas of employer ethics.

How many employers, for example, hire people on a part-time contract with the promise of ‘more hours’ further down the line? It’s a habit that leaves employees disengaged and eventually leads to a revolving door policy of part-time staff.

We are advancing quickly away from a nine-to-five mindset so that time is no longer actually the issue. Managing energy levels, wellbeing, engagement and the full range of modern HR metrics is the challenge, and employees themselves shouldn’t fall into the trap that flexibility means fulfilment, without thought.

It helps to have a visionary figurehead for a new working model, and Ford himself set another template. In 1914, he announced that Ford Motor Company would pay $5 a day to its workers. This more than doubled their wages and, it is argued, helped to build the US middle class and the modern economy.

Crucially, this was a move that worked for both employer and employee. The challenge for business is to find the modern equivalent.

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