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 for the motion, watch our clips to see how the debate unfolded.
Arguing for increased flexible working and the positive impact this has on the workforce, Team One presented a clear agenda from the outset: flexibility should be inherently flexible. The argument in favour of flexible working shouldn’t mean you’re always working and it certainly doesn’t mean turning your dining room table into a boardroom. It’s a way of giving a degree of control and independence back to the individual, which has been proven to have a positive effect on mental health. One 2010 study from Durham University found that flexible working arrangements which “increase worker control and choice” had a positive effect on a plethora of health outcomes – sleep quality, tiredness and alertness, blood pressure and mental health – as well as "secondary" outcomes, including a sense of community and social support within a workplace. Another study discovered that workers on flexible contracts tended to be more emotionally engaged, more satisfied with their work, more likely to speak positively about their organisation and less likely to quit.
Operating a flexi-time scheme can help reduce stress levels. For example, taking a later train in order to miss the rush hour commute can put workers in a better mood and increase their focus and output during the working day. Research by VitalityHealth has shown that longer commutes can have an impact on wellbeing. The study found that those commuting more than 60 minutes each way were 12% more likely to report issues due to work-related stress. Such stress can be reduced if employees have a greater degree of autonomy over their working patterns.
As part of their argument the team proposed that flexible working fosters a greater degree of diversity and inclusion by opening up roles to a wider range of people. A recent RICS poll revealed that flexible working was one of the top recommendations made by industry professionals to make construction a more attractive and progressive career choice for female talent. The RICS noted that women currently make up around 14% of the industry’s workforce and said that the highest proportion of female chartered surveyors leave between the ages of 28-35, often to raise families or pursue career changes that can better fit around their family life. With 48% of survey respondents putting flexible working as their top recommendation to encourage and retain female staff, this is clearly a priority for those working in the industry.
The main thread of argument suggested by Team One hinged on the notion that the individual and company shouldn’t need to choose between one or the other, you can have the best of both worlds by blending flexible working and office working together. The team proposed that this approach provides employees with time to think without the presence of certain distractions that can arise in an office environment and then discuss their thoughts and collaborate with colleagues in a shared physical office space. It was also noted that cross pollination of ideas is not restricted to physical workplaces. Typically, we don’t spend our days seeking to collaborate with our colleagues around our office. The ability to disengage from a noisy and distracting environment fosters clear thinking and clarity of ideas.
Considering the inevitability that there will be urgent issues or problems that need to be solved quickly the team stated that if flexible employees did need to rally together in order to make a quick decision, there is a plethora of collaboration platforms available that would enable you to do this. For example, tools such as Slack, Asana and Google Hangouts allow community instant messaging, with some of these platforms supporting audio and video conference calling so that important, time-sensitive messages don’t have to be typed out.
Ultimately any flexible arrangement needs to take into account both the individual and the company. Employers need outputs to be delivered but the individual also needs to be accommodated for. More companies are realising there is not a ‘one-size-fits-all-approach’ as the way we work is unique to each person. The group raised the point that high-performing organisations tend to foster a corporate culture of trust and such companies are increasingly offering flexible working initiatives. A 2017 Harvard Business Review article found that employees in high-trust organisations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies.
The cost of flexibility
Office space is a commodity. If you take the City as an example, according to Savills the average prime rent in April 2019 for the three preceding months was £78.60/sq ft – a 55.6% increase from April 2000. The long-term upward trend of office rents has encouraged many companies to incorporate flexible working practices in a bid to reduce desk space and to lower overheads.
Another consideration was the environmental cost of flexible working and the impact this can have on carbon emissions. Flexible working has long been touted as a way to reduce our carbon footprint and benefit the environment. Working from home can result in carbon, money and time savings and if office space is properly rationalised to reflect this, homeworking can also significantly reduce office energy consumption and rental costs.
There are of course costs associated with flexible working and it’s possible that camaraderie may be impacted, but as one participant said, “you can always move team drinks to a different day”.
In their closing statement, the team arguing for increased flexible working and the positive impact this can have emphasized that flexible working isn’t disassociating yourself from the activities of the workplace - it merely allows you to tailor your workload and approach to work, giving employees the opportunity manage their own time. As a technologically savvy generation, the team concluded that it was certainly capable of striking the right balance.
Many other industries have changed the way staff work and now implement flexible working where previously the mind-set was fixed. As the growing skills shortage in construction begins to prevent us from working in a traditional manor, it is evident that the industry needs to adapt in order to attract the limited pool of capable talent.
Of course, flexibility in the workplace needs to be managed and controlled. Team One acknowledged that it can create a degree of uncertainty to those who are unfamiliar with managing flexible working patterns, but concluded that where there is uncertainty - there is also opportunity.
The full list of those who took part in the roundtable debate is as follows: