LREF NextGen Debate 2019: The impact of flexible working - Part 1
The impact of technology and an increase in flexible working is having a detrimental effect on the health and wellbeing of London’s employees. Discuss.
This statement was posed to 12 NextGen professionals working in various capacities across the industry at LREF 2019. The table was divided into two multi-disciplinary teams of six, each team tasked with debating opposing sides of this motion.
Flexibility is the current panacea for improved work-life balance, but is this improving quality of life in practice? How will technology-enabled agile working play out in the long term? What are the business considerations when it starts to affect productivity, be it positively or negatively? Is flexibility the key to an egalitarian and productive workforce in the future?
Both teams delivered opening statements framing their arguments for and against increased flexibility in the workplace. It was suggested that by 2020, more than half of a company’s full-time workforce would be working remotely. Whilst it was noted that flexible working doesn’t have a true definition, it is generally understood to include to flexi-time, working from home (WFH), job sharing, and family friendly policies. Are these new methods of working having a positive or negative effect on the traditional workforce?
Below is the argument presented against the motion, watch our clips to see how the debate unfolded.
Team Two – arguing against increased flexibility - proposed that there needs to be clear separation between work and play and that flexible working blurs the line between the two, potentially having an adverse impact on mental health.
Without carefully defined parameters in place, the group suggested that working flexibly could encourage an ‘always on and always available’ culture. Late night phone calls could become increasingly common as managers may feel more entitled to call on employees to complete tasks. Even without pressure from managers, many have found that flexible working breeds a temptation to work even when they are not required to. Responding to that ‘critical email’ can take employees beyond the dividing line between home and work and may end up putting a strain on home life.
Whilst offering flexible working opportunities can widen the potential talent pool, it was countered that as a relatively new phenomenon, the current generation are effectively guinea pigs. Many are likely to struggle to efficiently manage their time and so having a designated place of work in an office environment may be beneficial for productivity. Whilst working flexibly in a personalised ‘go-to’ place in an ‘at home’ environment may be beneficial to those with anxiety for example, what’s stopping employers from fitting out their offices to replicate such an environment?
Work, it was suggested, is a naturally collaborative experience and whilst technology exists to facilitate collaboration, it’s harder to forge more personal relationships and boost team morale when members of your team are working in separate physical locations. One of the design philosophies behind Apple’s new “Spaceship” campus - a circular building called Apple Park in Cupertino, California – was to foster spontaneous encounters. Recognising that unplanned encounters can spark ideas and move projects forward, office space can be designed with this in mind. It’s very hard to replicate these benefits when working remotely and as stated by the team: “If you can’t collaborate, our industry falls apart”.
The team raised several questions regarding the logistics of flexible working and how this can be implemented in reality. For example, how do you find mutually convenient times that work for everyone when organising team meetings? Flexibility is hard to manage on an ad-hoc basis. Sometimes you need to align employees in order to make a quick decision or run the risk of additional project costs and that’s hard to do if employees have fragmented working patterns and different locations.
Team Two raised the point that construction careers generally involve a lot of on-the-job or workplace-based training and questioned whether it’s possible to really progress if you’re working from home. The team suggested that when a new situation or an unfamiliar problem arose, it would be more difficult to obtain a quick and insightful answer if the individual was working flexibly. Equally, it would be more difficult to give good guidance and advice to colleagues that are working remotely, as it’s harder to gage feelings, emotions and reactions. The team went on to say that office-based work teaches you a lot about how to approach and engage with people. It’s very easy to hide behind a screen and i'ts far easier for the next generation of workers to have fewer face-to-face interactions and less exposure to people. Amid a constant barrage of electronic information, people skills are now more important than ever to hone and develop.
Is there a cost to flexibility?
The team suggested that small business owners in certain communities can indirectly suffer from loss of earnings as a result of certain flexible working practices. As more and more people work from home, companies may struggle to generate business as a result of lower footfall. For the employee working from home, there is also the question of who should cover the cost of any necessary IT equipment and the cost of increased home energy bills that are likely to be incurred.
A 2014 report from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) found that in terms of the overall balance of the costs and benefits for employers offering flexible working, the literature remains unclear. The report also said that businesses do not generally collect data on the benefits and costs of implementing flexible working policies, and that any information that is being collected is often sensitive. The report did establish that there were implementation and ongoing administrative burdens which would incur costs but these were difficult to accurately quantify as they depend on a variety of factors such as the size of the company and the sector it operated in.
However, a variety of surveys have elicited employer perceptions of flexible working. The BIS report summarised several of these surveys and found that on balance, there was little evidence that the benefits of flexible working outstripped the costs and that further research was needed to expand the evidence base.
The growing skills shortage in construction is preventing us from continuing to work in a traditional manor and, whether the construction industry likes it or not, it needs to adapt in order to attract the limited pool of capable talent.
Team Two agreed that many of the historical barriers to flexible working have been removed. Faster internet connections and widespread availability of collaboration software means that there are fewer hurdles to clear. However, they also cautioned that despite its availability, we are still not using collaboration technology efficiently enough yet.
There is no doubt that flexibility in the workplace needs to be managed and controlled. There are many elements that have not been tested enough and the boundaries of what can be done have not yet been pushed to their limits. There are still several evolutions of the flexible working model to be tested, however the group also suggested that our utilisation of the office concept has also not reached its full potential. With some of the biggest businesses in the world such as Google, Facebook, Fora and Microsoft investing heavily in their office locations, the office looks set to have a role to play in the future of work.
The full list of those who took part in the roundtable debate is as follows: