Part 2: Flexible working with Professor Carol Atkinson

09 October 2020

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About the speaker: Professor Carol Atkinson
With extensive research expertise in HR and performance and expectations of the employment relationship, Professor Carol is Faculty Head at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Business School. She has won both research council and organisational funding to research topics such as working time flexibility, the HR/performance relationship and older workers. Her most recent work explores gender pay gaps and menopause in the workplace.

Watch the highlights of the Webinar



Flexible working is on the rise, and it’s been demonstrated that greater flexibility in the working day can be hugely beneficial to businesses. However, working flexibly is often mistaken for working remotely, which is far from the truth! We invited guest speaker Professor Carol Atkinson, of Manchester Metropolitan University, to discuss the benefits and challenges facing those working flexibly during the second session of our webinar series.

Here, we highlight some of the points discussed during the session, entitled ‘Flexible working: the pros and cons and how to manage productivity’, focusing on how to make the most of flexible work, whether you’re currently working from home or back in the office.

What is flexible working

To understand how flexible working can be managed, Carol explained it falls into three main areas: time flexibility, location flexibility and task flexibility.

While most individuals think of flexible work in terms of time (e.g. working hours), there has been a recent shift in perceptions as many employees saw themselves working from home (location flexibility).

Task flexibility will become increasingly important over the next few years, with the concept of ‘job crafting’ – taking steps to redesign what employees do at work, by changing the nature of tasks, how they’re allocated, working relationships, and job perceptions – becoming more prominent.

Generational shift in expectations

The main shift towards greater demand for flexible working comes from millennials; known to be far more vocal in terms of what they expect from the workplace, millennials make up an important demographic in the workforce. Their focus on gaining value and satisfaction from working, as well as how they are accommodated in the workplace, are all important areas for employees take into consideration.

On the other hand, there is also a large group of older workers who are working longer than ever – they may not want the same pressure at work as they used to, or maybe aren’t able to perform the same tasks. Despite this, older workers still have valuable expertise and experience, so companies should consider a flexible job design.

What both generations need, is the ability for an employer to be flexible to their individual needs – but it’s not just a tick-box exercise.

Quality flexible work

While flexible working is hard to define, the idea of ‘contract of choice’ sums it up nicely. Flexible work has different meanings for each individual, for example; some may say part-time work is flexible working, while others may consider this a negative and an example of under-employment. Flexible work comes down to what the employer and employee agree upon as being of benefit to both of them.

Carol explained that remote working may be flexible work if an employee wants to work from home, however that may not be the case if the person wants to work in an office. When both the employer and employee agree on what suits them both, then this is called ‘quality flexible work’. Rather than imposing rules, there should be mutual agreements and arrangements.

Managing flexible work: focus on outputs, not inputs

Companies often still follow a traditional work model that assumes an individual should work a number of contract hours, e.g. the usual 37.5 hours a week, at a designated workplace. This has been the way companies and employees have structured work for many decades. As we move to flexible working, if we try to replicate what we did in an office, such as sitting and working on the laptop from 9 to 5, this isn’t very successful.

Employees should be able to work in ways that suit them, with greater flexibility in this way leading to greater productivity. It’s not about the hours people work or where they are actually working, it’s about a project being delivered to a particular deadline or a report written by a particular day.

This requires a lot of trust from employers, but also autonomy from staff. Employees should be able to do their work how they see fit, as long as they deliver it successfully and in a timely manner. It should be the employer’s role to facilitate, enable and provide the support needed for work to be delivered, such as technology, training, or communication mechanisms.

There is a big shift in mindset required to support this flexible way of work. Carol said that during the pandemic, many employers have used monitoring, control techniques and software which are unhelpful and pressuring, and shows that they don’t trust their workforce.

The link between flexible work and productivity

Carol explained that flexible work can have positives and negatives. If implemented well, it can improve work life balance and mental health, job satisfaction and motivation. This will naturally lead to more productivity as individuals are happier at work.

However, at the start of the pandemic, many people couldn’t relate to this new way of work. New studies show there are difficulties, especially in terms of creativity and collaboration – brainstorms, chats and social contact is still key. There has also been an increase in isolation and loneliness, stress and burnout, as well as a need for space and technology. Inducting new colleagues and making them feel part of an organisation is a challenge; people need social contacts to integrate and develop.

The future of flexible working

For most companies, there won’t be a permanent shift to ‘remote’ working, although it will increase. However, predictions show that the concept of flexible working will rise.

Time flexibility will need to be thought of in an imaginative way to avoid redundancies and retain staff; this could be done via job-share, keeping the skills and experience in the company throughout the pandemic.

Task flexibility/job crafting, currently in its infancy as a concept, is predicted to spread wider in the next few years. As a more demanding demographic enters the workforce, as work expectations change, and as the workforce ages, we need to think about how we can meet their needs in a creative and varied way.

Work flexibility is extremely rewarding but also challenging; by adopting quality flexible work practices, employers will successfully be able to welcome a modern work model to ensure their skilled workforce is happy and productive, while delivering quality work.

For more information on the next in our webinar series, keep an eye on our wellbeing hub and social media channels.