Let's be flexible about flexible working
‘Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.’
Workplace redesign towards 'open-plan' and 'hotdesking' and the often complementary use of flexible and remote working has been common in some industries for decades. Clearly, both flexible and remote work have passed a crucial tipping point during the pandemic. In this post I will share a few reflections on this global trend and its human implications.
Agility and flexibility in the use of work space and the way people work are major themes in global efforts to transform workplaces of many kinds, not just offices for knowledge workers. Modern office spaces and enabling technologies pre-pandemic were often designed to assist agile or flexible working.
This can seem to prioritize collaboration, and group creativity over individual effort, concentration, or privacy. Agile workplace design needs to be done in a way that is sensitive to the need for people to be able to concentrate at certain times, and to engage in team or group activities at other times. This balance is important for people with differing personality preferences to be effective and productive.
Personality research suggests, for example, that a highly introverted personality may lead to people not participating as proactively in activities that require leadership in office-based settings. The kind of leadership and group activity that tended to be expected and reinforced in typical workplace settings was a potential cause for emotional discomfort for those with highly introverted personality. That is not to say that those with such personality cannot contribute to projects or lead teams well. What is important is that they are not forced to occupy spaces designed around the needs of people with highly extroverted preferences. The option to work at home in a way that works for individuals within their own context, will be a helpful complement to open-plan office spaces for many people in the workforce.
Agile working may in this sense be beneficial to introverts in that it should allow greater flexibility, and the opportunity to work in whatever space makes sense for the task at hand. However, research done pre-pandemic by Gail Kinman and Almuth McDowall suggests that in terms of the effects on employees, ‘systematic reviews have concluded that any gains from flexible working are modest at best’. They cite several empirical psychological studies, which indicate that ‘flexible working can intensify stress’ and ‘increase rather than reduce conflict between work and personal life’.
Rather than ‘imposing remote working on their employees’, Kinman and McDowall argue that ‘employees should retain some choice and control over flexible working options’, as well as receive adequate support when jobs are ‘redesigned and reconfigured’. This is important for organizations to note. Flexible and remote working solutions are not a panacea for employee wellbeing, engagement, or productivity, even if they have worked well enough during a pandemic. Such solutions require constant monitoring, and alignment with context.
The implication of the psychological research is that work redesign needs to be participatory, as far as possible allowing employees in different segments of the workforce to derive maximum benefit. Extreme or rigid measures of any kind – such as general edicts for everyone to work indefinitely from home or edicts to be in the office – are likely to be too uniform and simplistic to be effective in the long run, within a diverse workforce.
Blunt and bureaucratic HR policies that allow all employees to work from home for 'two days per week' are also unlikely to empower people, or capture the real essence, or full benefit, of greater flexibility, and collective agility. Campus life in well-equipped modern universities, with its sense of vitality, variety and richness, is possibly a closer corollary to how working life could be for more people post-pandemic. Companies claiming or aspiring to be agile 'learning organizations' might create several facilities for different types of activity, and allow people to self-organize more.
New ways of working and new workplace designs need to be introduced with creativity and productivity in mind. Business sectors each have differing needs. The psychological needs of different employee segments, the desired employee experiences, and systemic consequences of workplace policies need careful and balanced consideration. This should be based on a scientific appreciation of what makes a team or an organization effective, not just on the personal whims of people in top-floor corner offices.
What kind of approach would you like to see in the implementation of agile, flexible and remote-working solutions over the long-term?
See also -
Kinman, G. & McDowall, A. (2017). The present and future of flexible and agile work. The Psychologist, November 2017, pp. 27–28.
Mort, A. (2015). Why the Apparent Advantages of the Open-plan Office are Devastating for Introverts. Blog entry. Available at https://www.andymort.com/open-plan-office/. Viewed September 12th, 2017.
Spark, A., Stansmore, T., & O’Connor, P. (2018). The failure of introverts to emerge as leaders: The role of forecasted affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 121, pp. 84–88.
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