The F-word: the new world of workplace flexibility


Workplace flexibility can be a double-edged sword for workers.


By Professor Tim Bentley

Our workforces are entering a new age of flexibility, driven by new digital technologies, globalisation, environmental pressures, changing demographics and new forms of social interaction and organising. But flexibility is a double-edged sword that can be both good and bad for workers.

The good: flexible working

Technology has transformed how, when and where work routines and personal activities are conducted. One critical and rapidly growing development in working practices, enabled by digital technology, is the notion of ‘anywhere, anytime working’, also known as flexible working. 

Studies from several countries have shown productivity benefits from flexible working. Workers save time and energy by not commuting at peak times, or at all; they have increased autonomy and uninterrupted working time; such arrangements also provide for greater work-life balance, increased individual wellbeing and retention within the workforce. 

In today’s workplace, flexible working is no longer thought of as a perk, but as a legitimate option for not only those with care responsibilities, but anyone who does ‘knowledge’ work. Organisations are rethinking what work is – rather than a place, work is now a process than can be done anywhere. An increasing number of organisations internationally are adopting flexible ways of working, including working from home and co-working centres and hubs.

While accurate statistics are hard to find, it is clear that many workers around the globe now work remotely. For example, around one-quarter of European workers were identified as being remote workers as long ago as 2010. Current information also indicates an increasing trend of work mobility in this part of the world. A joint Massey University and AUT study of over 1700 staff across 50 Australian and New Zealand organisations found 89 per cent worked remotely at least some time during the working week. More than half worked from home at least one day per week.

Flexible working is particularly desirable for digital natives, with a recent Dutch study of Generation Y (18-25 year olds) workers finding 87 per cent would like to work in a mobile way. These and other studies suggest there will be an increasing demand from employees for flexibility in the coming years.  So how prepared are New Zealand organisations to meet this challenge?

The answer can be found by looking across the broad employment environment in this country. At government level, there is no one body responsible for promoting this aspect of the digital economy, as far as we can see. With a lack of leadership at national and industry level, our research tells us that most organisations do not have formal policy nor formalised work arrangements in this area, although most are aware of the potential technology brings and the need for supporting new ways of working. 

Many managers are stuck in outmoded ways of thinking and strongly resist new forms of working – particularly those where the employee cannot be readily monitored. This is largely a matter of trust!  This is a major cultural restraint towards achieving significant growth in digital productivity and should be an important focus for industry and government. When you overlay legislation changes around flexibility, this becomes a key issue for organisations to grapple with.

Professor Tim Bentley (far right) with Healthy Work Group colleagues Associate Professor Bevan Catley and Dr Dianne Gardner.


The bad: insecure employment

While many workers are demanding and gaining the benefits of flexible working arrangements, there is a growing proportion of our working population who are becoming the working poor. These low skilled and unskilled workers compete for service roles with poor pay and conditions and, increasingly, insecure employment contracts.

The worst of these is known as zero-hours contracts – a punitive contracting arrangement that provides only disadvantage to the worker and high flexibility to the employer. The government has fortunately resisted the advance of such contracting practices in New Zealand to date and should be applauded for this. But other similarly punitive contracting arrangements remain and are growing in popularity among employers.

The lack of union membership outside the public sector and the increasing casualisation of the workforce means that many workers are not protected by employment legislation and have little or no voice in matters affecting their work. This is a challenge for government to grapple with now, but there seems little sign of policy making in this area, although the Labour Party’s Future of Work Commission is taking stock of these and other issues. 

Within the next decade, technology and other forces will fundamentally shift the way business is done, the way we work and how we live. A New Zealand business environment that is flexible, future-ready and prepared to exploit opportunities presented by these changes is essential to our future economic and social wellbeing. If we are to grasp these opportunities, government and organisations must make future-proofed policy decisions and put in place practices that improve organisational and individual outcomes in the future of work.

Tim Bentley is a Professor of Work and Organistion at Massey University’s School of Management and a founding member of Massey’s Healthy Work Group.

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