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How Flexible Is Flexible Work?

Wednesday April 27

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In contemporary times, several types of industries are able to offer employees performing specific functions, temporal and spatial flexibility of work. The employee need not be confined to the walls of the traditional office, provided the work gets done. The prevailing myth is that you could wake up at noon, relax in your own home, watch the match score, go out for lunch, pick up the kids from school, make dinner and your ‘office’ work will get done somehow by the end of the day.

 

In this article I will present the view that even though so-called flexible work enables certain categories of employees to break free from the constraints of their lives and be actively engaged in the workforce, they are not as free as you might think. Do you think as an employee with flexibility you would be able to respond to your boss’s email three hours later? Your mobile ‘surveillance’ device clocks in the time that the email was read and responded to, so you will not have the luxury of answering that email once your golf game is over.

 

Technology such as video conferencing, skype calls and other forms of remote, virtual face-to-face communication ensure that you have to shave your face or get out of your pyjamas before you get into business mode! Never mind that you have flip-flops on your feet. That still doesn’t count as flexible work in my mind. So if your time is really not your own, then what is? Is it your space? Look around your home- where is the most convenient place to work from, where you wouldn’t be disturbed if you don’t have the luxury of a study, and face the challenge of kids screaming, playing, fighting or the kettle going off, the doorbell ringing etcetera etcetera. You might as well be entering that data from the rooftop. Moreover, the spatial flexibility of work necessitates discipline. If you resist that urge to make your fifth trip to the refrigerator or stretch your legs out on the bed with the report in your hand before you doze off- you might be able to benefit from flexible forms of work.

 

For some categories of employees such as mothers with infants, flexibility of work enables them to remain in the workforce. It also saves the time and cost related to commute, provides safety and security to women who would have to work the night shift in an office location (which countless women still do), and enables people to have more than one job at a time.

 

It is a fallacy to assume that flexible workers have it any easier than those who are slaving away at their desks. Imagine-all the housework and child minding for a woman with the additional office work, all of which overlap and do not end at any given time. For a man with flexible hours, some of the challenges are stated above. At a psychological level, in certain cultures men derive their sense of achievement from work and the actual physical workplace has a big role to play in this process. Journalistic and academic articles have shown how unemployed Japanese men for instance, still get ‘dressed for work’ and leave the home on a daily basis. There is something to be said for an actual workplace that is distinct from one’s personal space.

 

From the point of view of the employer, the flexible worker’s productivity at home is in question. Also there is the additional challenge of creating a corporate culture and feeling of oneness with the firm. Teamwork is difficult to achieve if the team is not present at the office site. Besides, there is no replacement for human interaction. The ability to walk over to a colleague’s desk to sort out a small problem is far more productive than any virtual or digital form of communication. Further, it is my belief that people would be more productive in an environment where there is at least the physical separation of ‘work’ and ‘personal’ life, though countless philosophers would argue that this separation is just a farce.

 

The flexibility of work enables valuable employees to remain with the firm even in challenging personal life situations and the organization providing this opportunity is sure to become known as a desirable employer. There are enough arguments to be made for both sides, but I leave with you with this thought- if ‘work’ permeates your ‘life’, and your ‘life’ becomes so intertwined with ‘work’ that a separation cannot be made between the two- then you are facing an existential time bomb!

 

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