EMBRACING WORK FLEXIBILITY BENEFITS BOTH INDIVIDUALS AND CORPORATE WELLBEING?
"Work from home," "remote working," "work flexibility," "online working" are the most common words one is hearing during the last two years. COVID-19 made employees shift their work from onsite/in-office to online. Within a few months, this online form of working has become the "new normal." Though this remote working and work flexibility has been in practice for a long time, it has become predominant nowadays. Given these circumstances, it is the necessity of the hour to ask whether working remotely 100% is good for health, i.e., both physical and mental, can it improve mental wellness, and how it can impact a person's social interactions. This article aims to explore these questions with research backup.
Work flexibility can be defined as a form of working adopted by companies to allow their employees to work at their favorable location at favorable timings. Many companies generally adopt this for the employee and companies' wellbeing. But is it really promoting wellbeing? It's the question that needs further probing.
Now, let's look into a few advantages and disadvantages associated with this work flexibility. Studying the relation between work flexibility and health dates back to the 1980s and 1990s. According to the model suggested by Diane F. Halpern on the advantages of adopting time-flexible work policies, propose that:
When employees are in good health, the cost of health care can be reduced
Fewer leaves and late comings can translate into higher productivity; and
Perceived work flexibility can increase commitment to an employer.
This model further tells that when these time-flexible work policies are more family and employer-friendly, they can result in multiple benefits to employers.
As per the state of remote work (2021), the working population feels the most significant benefits of working remotely as having a flexible work schedule, flexibility to work from anywhere, not necessary to commute, spend time with their family, and mostly have the freedom of working from home. Recent studies conducted during the COVID time show that the main advantages of working from home are having a work-life balance, improvement in work efficiency, and having significant control over the work. This new work normal during COVID also seems to reduce stress, increase productivity, and have less contact with others. According to an article by TalentLyft, employers seemed to benefit from this remote working in terms of productivity, easy recruitment, and employee retention.
According to work adjustment theory by Dawis and Lofquist (1984), work flexibility led to higher employee involvement and increased job performance. A study by Bal and De Lange (2015) observed that the relationship between work flexibility and job performance was mediated by employee commitment. It was also seen that time flexibility significantly impacted labor productivity. Many other studies have also observed that work flexibility leads to performance enhancement.
Despite these advantages, work flexibility or work from home seem to have noticeable disadvantages too. In the early years, work flexibilization was adopted due to increased competition, rapid fluctuations in the labor market, rapid changes in product making, and technology advancements and adaptation. Upon extensive review, Lendfers and Nijhuis (1980) proposed four significant phenomena that can potentially affect flexible job patterns and promote or reduce workers' health and wellbeing. They are:
Alternating work hours
Changes in the certainty of employment
Increased opportunities for individual growth; and
Varies in interpersonal relations
Another study (Martens M et al., 1999) showed that working in shifts, tight work during the week, and improperly changing working hours (a kind of work flexibility) resulted in more health complaints, decreased psychological performance, and increased sleeping problems. These two studies clearly indicate that in earlier days (sometimes even now), work flexibility was not really flexible in nature and had different effects based on the individuals' perception.
Along with the work from home benefits we discussed previously, employees face few issues working from home/remotely. As per the state of remote work (2021), by working remotely, employees were unable to unplug easily, starting to have difficulties with collaboration and communication, feeling lonely, having distractions at home, having trouble staying motivated and focused, and facing problems with teammates in different time zones. Given the current COVID situations, these problems are furthered with isolation, decreased salaries, mental exhaustion from video calls, decreased cyber security, inability to discuss sensitive information over video calls, and increased chance of getting hacked (Twingate research, 2020).
An interesting study took place during COVID when even medical-related meetings and decisions took place online. For head and neck cancer treatment, a multidisciplinary team is usually needed for management and decision-making. Due to Covid, these multidisciplinary meetings took place online. A study was conducted (Mohamedbhai et al., 2021) to check if these remote meetings work. Results show that, though the team's decision-making is unchanged, technology helped with their work satisfaction, the team perceived deficiencies in engagement, training, teamwork, and communication. This study clearly indicates that though there are certain advantages, remote working affects individuals' (or teams') social relations and skills.
Given the above studies, one could conclude that work flexibility and working from home are problematic. But it is important to note that, though there were increased problems during early COVID, many companies worked hard to control the situation. It controlled most of the problems in the initial stages so that both the employees and the work do not get affected.
Have you ever imagined that though you are working flexibly, you end up working more hours than you need?
An extensive study by Dr. Heejung Chung showed that autonomy, freedom, and flexibility over working hours could result in workers ending up working long hours (more than 48 hours/week). The possible reason for this could be the gift exchange theory, i.e., workers treat their freedom given by their employer as a gift. They feel rewarded and get motivated to work more hours to show their sincerity and let employers know that they can be trusted with the gift of autonomy. Another possible reason could be that by providing a flexible work environment, some human resources changed their payment policy and paid salaries to the employees based on their performance rather than the number of hours they work. This change in work policy made employees feel competitive and work harder and longer hours to get maximum pay.
Studies show that long working hours can lead to cardiovascular disease (Virtanen et al., 2021), diabetes mellitus (Kivimaki et al., 2015), metabolic syndrome (Kobayashi et al., 2012), obesity (Kim et al., 2016), nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (Song et al., 2021), the decline in cognitive functions (Marianna et al., 2009), and concentration and attention (Caruso et al., 2004). Plausible reasons for these problems could be limited leisure time, decreased physical activity, unhealthy dietary patterns, alternations in lifestyles (smoking and drinking), sleep disturbance, general fatigue, and stress.
Nachreiner (2002) infer that risk of accidents increases after the seventh and eighth hours of overtime. This risk of accidents, in turn, has additional effects such as extra payment in the event of sickness or increased insurances to the employees. This also seems to affect the chance of committing errors, which in the long term can increase economic costs. Given these problems, employers must check on their employees' working hours and mental and physical health so that the organization and the employee do not face long-term issues. Companies need to work on their work policies, employee satisfaction, and happiness and make necessary changes for their betterment.
All in all, at the end of the day, we all still question whether companies adopting work flexibility do good or bad. Will it benefit both employer and employee? Though there are studies that show both employees and employers face issues due to work flexibility and remote working, companies are doing their best to provide comfort and security to their employees. They are trying their best to provide both onsite and remote working opportunities to their employees and ensure that their workplace will not affect their work performance. Currently, few companies are fully adopting remote work environments, and some are going with hybrid workspace. Some of the companies that have adopted fully remote work environments are Atlassian, Dropbox, ONVU Technologies, Quora, Twitter, Shopify, Spotify, Slack, Zillow, etc.,
So, how can these companies incorporate complete remote working or hybrid workspace? Well, to increase the work flexibility at an organization, one can:
Allow employees to explore their personal interests
Giving them multiple options to work (part-time, full-time, remote working, etc.)
Creating family-friendly space
Motivating the employees by rewarding their work based on their needs
Encouraging breaks, team lunch, outings, etc.,
Given these studies and the possible measures companies are taking to give the best to their employees, it is too early to say complete work flexibility is good or bad for employees and companies' wellbeing. Since most of the companies around the world are trying their best to adopt this flexible work environment and take necessary steps to prevent any damage this could cause, we can be optimistic about this matter and expect a better space for both employees and companies. The companies and the employees should be ready to solve the challenges they may face during the transition because a significant change takes time. The working flexibility arrangement definitely is the way to move forward given the pandemic as well as the need for 'human connectedness".
Before you go, here are some interesting statistics:
When collected responses from over 2,300 remote workers before and during COVID-19, the following results are shown:
Before COVID-19, people who worked remotely considered having a flexible schedule (36%) as the biggest benefit, followed by the flexibility to work from any location (27%). These statistics got changed a bit due to COVID-19. Not commuting (28%) is considered the biggest benefit, followed by having a flexible schedule (27%).
Before COVID-19, people who worked remotely considered not being able to unplug (26%) as their biggest struggle. This is also the case due to COVID-19 (27%). But, a noticeable change was observed in perceived difficulties with collaboration & communication. A more than 7% increase was observed due to COVID-19 (20.5%) than prior COVID-19 (13%). Similar data were found with regards to different timezone as the perceived struggle. But, here, the perceived struggle was reduced due to COVID-19 (3%) compared to before COVID-19 (10%).
Maneela Sirisety - Contributor / Reseracher
Maneela is a Neuroscience and Psychology enthusiast who spends most of the time volunteering. Her journey to spreading the importance of mental health and promoting psychology started a year back, and now she is pursuing her Master's degree in Psychology in India. She always tries to improve herself and work positively towards the challenges. In her free time, she loves to do research and collect resources. She currently works for 3 non-profit organizations. She plans to work in the research area and work on Interdisciplinary topics. Her current interest lies in relating Neuro-Cyber-Psychopathology.