Is Flexible Working Flexible Enough: A Dissertation Summary

Is Flexible Working Flexible Enough: A Comparative Qualitative Analysis of Flexible Working Arrangements

Dissertation overview by Hannah Gilchrist, University of Liverpool

Is flexible working flexible enough? This is the question which I believe is critical to answer as we enter our post-pandemic world. With an increasing trend for both mothers and fathers to progress their careers whilst raising a family, and with hybrid working continually being considered as the new ‘normal’, the need to investigate how flexible working may impact parents’ well-being and career development is critical to establish a happy and inclusive workforce.

Today modern organisational practice urges workers to be free from external responsibilities outside of work, encouraging employees to work overtime and unpredictable hours. Slowly are the lyrics from Dolly Parton’s popular musical single ‘9 to 5’ becoming increasingly outdated, with employees working around the clock. However, not all society members can conform to this ‘Ideal Worker Norm’. A group particularly vulnerable to this are parents… and thus are the focus of my research project! Parents experience Work-Family Conflict, a notion describing the triumphant battle for the conquest of time between both opponents of work and family… Okay perhaps I went a little OTT, but I want to hit home just how stressful this battle can be!

Work-Family Conflict has found to lead to psychological distress and reduced physical health. To mitigate against these effects, and to establish a fair and equal society, access to flexible working was established to allow those who cannot comply to the Ideal Worker Norm (e.g., parents) to control their location and time of work. However, although traditional flexible working (where employees have some level of control over their flexible working arrangements) has been associated with reduced Work-Family Conflict, increased job satisfaction and worker productivity, there is research suggesting that traditional flexible working may also negatively impact employee wellbeing and career development.

Research has found that traditional flexible working may impact wellbeing through work intensification. Work intensification refers to the amount of effort employees put into their jobs during working hours. Studies have shown that flexible working may lead to increased work intensification with employees taking fewer breaks, increasing duration of intense focus, ultimately negatively impacting their well-being. Additionally, traditional flexible working has found to increase employees’ feelings of loneliness due to remote working (a typical flexible working arrangement). Finally, research has found that employees career development may be negatively impacted by traditional flexible working. Studies have shown that well-paid, highly skilled jobs often do not accommodate for flexible working arrangements, resulting in parents being forced to take lower-skilled/paid jobs, stunting their career development… hardly sounding like an inclusive workforce to me!

Considering the vast amount of research highlighting the negative consequences for employee well-being and career development which traditional flexible working may bring, it could be suggested that traditional flexible working (as it is currently utilised by organisations) is not flexible enough. Therefore, for my research project, I decided to conduct a comparative study between parents with access to traditional flexible working (where employees have some level of control through mechanisms such as reduced hours and hybrid working as is deemed appropriate by the employer) with parents who have access to extreme flexible working (where employees have the ultimate level of control through remote working and complete schedule autonomy, utilising flexible working mechanisms as they personally deem appropriate). With extreme flexible working being an entirely new concept there is currently no research studying its impact for working parents. Therefore, I was excited to fill a critical gap in the current literature!

By identifying how/why/in what ways extreme flexible working may help to promote employee well-being and career development, both of which are key for organisational success, this research may help to guide future flexible working practice as well as develop mitigation strategies towards the pitfalls of traditional flexible working. To establish this, interviews with eleven working parents (seven with traditional flexible working and four with extreme flexible working) were conducted and analysed. Don’t worry I won’t bore you with the methodology section…let’s dive right into the best part…what I found out!

Findings revealed that extreme flexible working was not found to be associated with the previously established pitfalls of increased work intensification and reduced career development which are typical of traditional flexible working! Through remote working and complete schedule autonomy, employees were able to spend more time with their children, ultimately reducing financial pressure, as well as being able to prioritise their family needs when necessary. Additionally, this study found that when all employees are provided equal access to extreme flexible working, flexible working is accessible in any pay/skill level, mitigating against the common traditional flexible working challenge of stunted career development. Check out the word cloud for some common phrases expressed by extreme flexible working employees during their interview! Considering these findings, this research may help to encourage organisations to adopt extreme flexible working opposed to traditional flexible working to move towards a happier and more inclusive workforce.

However, this all sounds too good to be true right? As always, we must look at the flip side. This study found that, like that of traditional flexible working, extreme flexible working was similarly associated with feelings of loneliness due to social isolation from colleagues. Extreme flexible workers reported that, despite online interaction, video conferencing limits their ability to engage in empathetic expression with colleagues, acting as a facilitator for loneliness. Moreover, extreme flexible working was found to be associated with feelings of imposter syndrome, with workers feelings guilty for working outside of traditional working hours (e.g., 9am – 5pm). That Bridget Jones feeling where she shouts during the Ed Sheeran Concert in the final film ‘It’s 4 O’clock in the afternoon… I should be hoovering.’ Okay, not quite, but you get the picture. With research suggesting that imposter syndrome may drive women to work longer hours to compensate for feelings of guilt, ultimately impacting well-being, more research is required to investigate this potential pitfall in greater detail to safeguard employee wellbeing.

To summarise, the aim of this research project was to investigate the comparative impact of both traditional and extreme flexible working for working parents. Findings contributed to the literature by confirming the previously identified pitfalls of traditional flexible working for parents Work-Family Conflict, wellbeing, and career development. Findings extended the literature by revealing that despite extreme flexible working being associated with feelings of loneliness, the previously established pitfalls of traditional flexible working were not similarly found for extreme flexible working. Therefore, extreme flexible working (through remote working and schedule autonomy) may help to improve parents Work-Family Conflict wellbeing and career development creating a happier and more inclusive workforce. In conclusion, with results highlighting the caveats of traditional flexible working, and the successes of extreme flexible working for working parents, this research project effectively raises the critical question for organisations which are currently utilising traditional flexible working – “Is flexible working flexible enough? “As we enter our post-pandemic world, this is the time to do things the right way… out with the old and in with the new! Let’s make the workplace a better place for the future!

This dissertation was conducted by Hannah Gilchrist in 2022 at the University of Liverpool, under the supervision of Dr Laura Radcliffe.

For further information contact Hannah Gilchrist on LinkedIn

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