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How flexible is flexible working in Europe?

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After years of many predicting remote working as the future for everybody, why is it not the norm, asks Duncan Greenwood, vice-president: end user computing at VMware EMEA.
Initial promises of the age of nine to five working hours to be coming to an end, now feel short lived. In an era where employees have access to technology that makes it easier to communicate than ever before, surrounded by smartphones, laptops and tablets, why do we still see the same rush hour traffic, almost predictably across cities in Europe, day in, day out?
After all, work should be considered as an activity – not a location. And while there are some exceptions to the rule, it’s indicative that the answer lies somewhere between addressing the stigma of remote working, for some still a perceived “dirty word” for both employees and employers alike, and understanding the cultural barriers and initiatives being introduced by local governments and organisations.
Many companies are taking tentative steps for its employees to work more flexibly, both in terms of location and time. In some instances, flexible working has become a requirement for certain job roles with companies having to re-think it’s often outdated approach to the office being central to getting work done, and instead understand how to offer its employees the tools to work most effectively.
When you consider that the first purpose-built office block was the Brunswick Building, built in Liverpool, England in 1841 it’s surprising to think that it’s taken the best part of a century and a half before flexible working has become mainstream.
Indeed, the implications and understanding of how to balance work and life responsibilities has been around for decades. Its societal impact is inherently linked to gender equality and life decisions. From an economic angle, flexible working can have a positive impact with a study from Citrix showing that the South African economy could grow with R17-bn annually.
However, if the environment in which employee’s work is better suited to their needs, it seems logical to positively correlate this with productive work, in a shorter space of time, with better results.
Although many organisations and its employees will benefit from flexible working, is this utopia causing friction between the two?
Flexible working was intended as a way to complete much of the same work from a different location or different times through better comfort, rather than an increased number of hours worked. But is there a risk that employees are simply seen as being more contactable and ‘mobile’ and eventually find it hard to switch off?
Across Europe, different policies and approaches to adopting a flexible working environment is taken. At the beginning of this year in France, it was introduced that organisations with over 50 workers are required to negotiate ‘right to disconnect’ times with their employees — when they are not needed to be on email. This comes at a time when the country seeks to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email checking. The aim of this new law is to lower stress levels and ensure employees are fairly paid for their work.
Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnouts and sleepless nights to relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off. Whilst this is not necessarily proven to be true, some companies have looked to curb this culture of working overtime.
Across the border in Germany, 38% of employees often work flexibly with a further 32% working flexibly from time to time[1].Volkswagen in Germany is often used as an example of successful implementing flexible working policies by capping after-work emails for employees with company-issued phones. It means that for workers under wage agreements, the firm’s email server is programmed to stop delivering messages between 6:15pm and 7am the following morning, while weekends are also off-limits.
At the other end of the scale, in the UK, every employer has to consider requests from all employees after 26 weeks of service — although these requests can be rejected. Perhaps then, it comes as no surprise that UK organisations lag behind many of their European counterparts, retaining a culture of fixed working hours and an emphasis on ‘face time’ within an office setting.
Despite this, the UK is changing with the Smarter Working Initiative (SMI) aiming to get over 200 000 people from 200 companies to be offered the option to work flexibly. In July 2017, The SMI was encouraging business leaders to sign up to this initiative — motivating people to work in a situation that suits them best, rather than being restricted to an office desk. The Confederation of Business Industry (CBI) has also recently called on employers to take flexible working more seriously and promote it as a benefit to prospective applicants to gain more traction.
Across the Atlantic, some companies have even reversed their beliefs in remote working. Yahoo and IBM have famously decided to move back to office work in a bid to increase collaboration, productivity, and in IBM’s case to create “greater moments of serendipity”. They believed this was best for business but critics have suggested that it could create a culture of mistrust, and even suggest to workers that they’re working for a ‘Big Brother’-style employer.
If flexible working is not at the top of your agenda, it’s worth bearing in mind the consequences to your talent pool if you do not offer these policies. According to a report by Deloite, 1 in 10 graduates view flexible working as the most important factor in picking a place of work. It can be a great too to help attract and retain talent, with employees, particularly the younger generation, wanting to know that they have an option to work in a way that suits them. There is also an element of trust involved. Employees want to know that their employer trusts them to produce the work they’ve been asked to do no matter when they do it, where they do it or how they do it.
It’s great to see opportunities that support employees and trends around flexible working. In reality, organisations need to ensure they have the foundation that supports efforts from across the enterprise. At a practical level, a technology platform is needed that has the ability to scale as the organisation grows. Moreover, there needs to be embedded protection, allowing security to become part of the framework and support various access requirements based on different personas within the organisation.
Deploying the correct platforms for flexible working is not difficult and will offer you the level of accessibility suitable for your company, whilst still allowing security measures and control to be in place for the employer. Technology has enabled flexible working, but it’s up to businesses to ensure they make the most of it to reap the rewards.