We already know that flexible working creates happy workers, and that happy workers are more productive – but does it go further than that? Matthew Jenkin examines the science and psychology of breaking out of the nine-to-five, and discovers it can boost career prospects
With its dark, freezing winters and relative lack of sunlight, Finland is an unlikely contender for the world’s happiest country. Yet this year the nation known for its emotionless avant-garde cinema topped the UN’s list of most contented places.
The Nordic nation was followed by neighbours Norway, Denmark and Iceland in the 2018 World Happiness Report’s rankings(1). While their shared love of saunas may help them let off steam after a hard day in the office, perhaps it’s the countries’ emphasis on flexible working hours and generous parental leave that have contributed to their high scores.
But does the opportunity to work when, where and how you like equal success in your career as well as happiness at home?
The answer is an emphatic yes. A mounting body of evidence shows that flexible working will not only improve your work-life balance, it can have a positive impact on your finances and open up new opportunities for progression.
A new study(2) by the Flex+Strategy Group, which helps businesses create flexible working cultures, claims that 60 per cent of US employees who have flexible working options feel they’re “more productive and engaged”. Of those who do work flexibly, 45 per cent feel that flexibility increases their ability to “communicate, create and innovate with colleagues”.
Flexible working is also making employees richer. A report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research(3) found that flexible working could cut 533 million hours a year in commuting time, saving British employees an annual £3.8bn, which rises to £7.1bn when the commuter value of time is taken into account.
Flexible working could help you take the next big step in your career
Working flexibly needn’t mean taking a pay cut, either. Last year’s report by flexible working group Timewise showed the rise of employers embracing job sharing has meant part-time roles paying more than £40,000 a year increased by five per cent between 2016 and 2017(4). Employers are also becoming more open to using job shares in senior roles – two out of five managers surveyed by the group consider hiring candidates for a senior role as part of a job share.
A report by the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute(5) provides further evidence to show that, far from hindering career progression, flexible working arrangements can boost it. The study of 3,000 professional and managerial women and men from the UK and the US revealed that respondents who work flexibly are significantly more likely to report having had two or more promotions over the past five years than those that do not (33 per cent against 24 per cent).
Putting parents first
These positive developments in flexible working opportunities are particularly beneficial to parents. Helping mothers and fathers work outside the standard nine-to-five day – going part-time or working remotely – can ease the transition back to work after a long period of leave and help them progress in their careers.
Research by the charity Working Families(6) found that parents who had an employer who supported their work-life balance through flexible working and other initiatives were 65 per cent more likely to stay with the company, while 62 per cent said they were more motivated and productive, and 56 per cent said they would go the extra mile. Joint research from Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women(7) also showed that women – frequently those with childcare commitments – benefit from flexible work arrangements, being more likely to succeed in their jobs and enjoying promotions.
However, there is still work to be done for flexible working initiatives to help parents reach their full career potential. According to Mubeen Bhutta, Working Families’ head of policy and campaigns, flexible working is still seen as a favour or a perk and she wants employers to start advertising their jobs as flexible from the outset.
She explains: “So when they are hiring, to actually think about the job and what they need from that person, to think about the kind of flexible working they might be able to offer rather than making changes and squeezing a five-day-a-week job into four days. Those are the sorts of things that store up problems in terms of workload.”
It’s a view shared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which claims such a change could help close the gender pay gap(8). The group suggests Britain should follow Scandinavian countries in offering working fathers greater levels of paid paternity leave(9). That could prompt more men to request flexible working arrangements and this in turn would help alleviate pressure on women to take lengthier breaks or leave their jobs.
A study from the University of Oxford’s Department of Sociology(10) echoed the EHRC report, finding that once men started working flexible hours, their wives’ hourly wages increased significantly, particularly if they were mothers (14.2 per cent after four years). The husband’s own hourly wages also increased by 7.4 per cent over the following four years.
The pursuit of happiness
Happy staff have been found to be 12 per cent more productive than unhappy employees(11). And occupational therapist Dr Roxane Gervais believes flexible working is a positive step forward to boosting wellbeing at work.
“Flexible working allows the time for you to let go and start living a bit more,” she says. “It also allows you to take time away to rethink and take a different approach that might actually help you tackle a work problem that’s been bothering you in a different, more effective way. That time away can help you refresh your brain.”
The myth that flexible working is a barrier to productivity and can kill a career is slowly being dispelled.
Professor Phyllis Moen, a sociologist from the University of Minnesota, helped conduct research published in the American Sociological Review(12) that showed, yet again, the overwhelming benefits of flexible working for both employees and companies.
The study looked at the effects of a pilot work flexibility programme at a Fortune 500 company. The results were definitive – employees who took part in the scheme voiced higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced levels of burnout and psychological stress than employees within the same company who did not participate.
“Our research demonstrates that workers who are allowed to have a voice in the hours and location of their work feel not only better about their jobs, but also less conflicted about their work-to-family balance,” explains Moen. “Crucially, these workers are also more efficient and more productive on the job.”
She adds: “Today’s workers are bombarded by advice on how to juggle their work and family lives – we’re told to take up yoga, or learn to meditate, or only check email twice a day. But individual coping strategies alone won’t solve the problem. Our study makes clear that organisational initiatives, including programmes that promote greater flexibility and control for workers as well as greater supervisor support, are needed.”
Matthew Jenkin is a British freelance journalist and the former editor of Guardian Careers, The Guardian newspaper’s community site for job seekers and career changers