Traditionally the realm of the part-time working mum, flexible working arrangements are now being offered and accessed at higher rates than ever before, and reimagined in forms much more creative than simply part-time work.
At the heart of this much needed shift in organisational thinking is the idea that employees can be effective and productive anywhere, anytime. (Gasp!)
But, unless we have an honest conversation about unpaid overtime and presentee-ism and how they continue to be viewed by many employers as a good measure of commitment, then there is a real risk that the growing use of flexible working arrangements will mutate into an enabler of toxic workplace practices.
When combined with an unspoken expectation of overtime, the features of flexibility that make it such a useful tool for those of us juggling a number of demands for our time and energy, are the very same features that have the potential to suck us in to a dangerous vortex of burnout.
Technology that enables us to work whenever and wherever it suits us, also keeps us constantly tethered to work regardless of the arrangement.
We sought out flexibility to enable us to give more of our scarce time and energy to other aspects of our lives that we value. But with the absence of a definitive end to the working day, that very flexibility dilutes our attention and presence in those important aspects of our lives. We’re able to be physically present, but our mindful presence is undermined.
The culture of presentee-ism that still pervades so many industries and organisations, leaves employees who work away from the physical office quite literally struggling to remain visible to key decision makers in the organisation.
These environments incentivise flexibly working employees to donate their labour around the clock – how else to be ‘seen’ but as an impressive number on a timesheet or as an unexpected answer to an email at 2am?
As we desperately try to make up for the lost ‘face time’, we undermine the very basis for seeking out a flexible working arrangement in the first place.
Organisations know this. This increased production capacity forms a fundamental pillar of the ‘business case’ in support of flexibility in the workplace.
At what point does that business case translate to passive exploitation of an employee’s reaction to toxic but subtle workplace cultures and norms?
Unless employers are serious about what is reasonable overtime and implement ways to measure and pay for overtime in excess of it (whether by hourly rates of pay or time-in-lieu), then employees accessing flexible working arrangements will create little more than a rod for their own backs.
Certain industries do this better than others – whether that’s by a noble objective, concerted effort or simply because their labour structure makes it easier.
Professional services is certainly one sector where action is desperately needed. In these fields sustained and regular overtime has the practical effect of many salaried professionals working for an effective hourly rate that is lower than the minimum wage (and often by a large margin).
The often linear relationship between employee input and organisational output in professional services firms completely disincentives them to proactively seek to correct these toxic cultures. Herein lies the opportunity for those organisations that can develop innovative and novel solutions to fully tap into the benefits that widespread acceptance and uptake of flexibility can have for an organisation and its employees.