Is flexible working all it’s cracked up to be?
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Is flexible working all it’s cracked up to be?

THE workplace is changing, and fast. The digital economy, shifting priorities of employees and technological advances all mean that adaptation is essential – and possible.

A prime example of this is the idea of flexible, or agile, work environments.

While once considered an abstract concept often viewed with disdain from employers who equated presenteeism with productivity, it is now a central pillar to people’s employment criteria.

Having the freedom to occasionally work outside the office and have more autonomy over your work hours may sound like an absolute slam-dunk. But is the future of flexible working all it’s cracked up to be?

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The simple answer is, yes.

But as with anything in this life, that comes with caveats.

What employees want

The rise of flexible working is understandably recent, given that advancements in modern technology are what make it possible in the first place. But what is surprising is just how many people now consider it an important factor when looking for employment, especially in Asia-Pacific.

A recent study from human resources specialist Randstad found 89 percent of employees in the region prefer agile working as it allows them to maintain a good work-life balance. In both Malaysia and China, 90 percent of employees agreed with this sentiment.

We also spoke to several executives at regional recruitment firm Robert Walters to get their take. When asked what people are looking for in employers, a recurring theme was flexibility as work life is about more than just a paycheque these days.

“Candidates are placing more importance on factors other than just salary when it comes to making employment decisions,” Kimberlyn Lu, Country Manager of Robert Walters Malaysia, told Asian Correspondent.

“[In response to this] an increased number of companies offering agile or flexible working arrangements to attract talent.”

The benefits of flexible working

Many studies have been done looking at the real cost benefits of flexible working for the employer; after all, money makes the world go round and if you can’t prove its impact on a company’s bottom line, then it’s going to be a hard sell.

The general consensus from studies the world over seems to be a positive one.

The understandable reluctance of many employers stems from a fear of reduced productivity. The figures, however, tell a different story.

Randstad found 89 percent of workers in Asia-Pacific believe agile working increases their productivity, creativity and job satisfaction. And this is supported by others.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) carried out a comprehensive review of flexible working environments and found that companies stand to benefit from the “extra effort, motivation, commitment, engagement, job satisfaction and subsequent productivity increase” in their employees.

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When coming to work is about more than showing up, things get done. When the employer’s focus is on the work being done, the employees can focus on meeting deadlines and producing good work – not on watching the clock tick by until it’s time to go home.

Another major factor affecting a company’s bottom line is absenteeism. In Singapore alone, absenteeism is expected to cost the US$2.4 billion annually by 2030. And Singapore has one of the lowest absenteeism rates in Asia.

The ILO’s research into the effects of flexible scheduling on absence rates found reduced rates in three-quarters of the cases studied. Organisations using flexitime also experienced reduced use of sick leave and lower incidence of tardiness.

A major selling point for business is the increased ability to attract and retain high-quality staff. As pointed out, flexible working is an important consideration for workers across the age spectrum. For company leaders, it can provide a coveted benefit to offer new talent. And this has a knock-on effect on profits.

ILO found long-run cost savings occur when a company attracts a higher quality workforce and retains it by lowering turnover and encouraging plans to stay with the company.

Ok, but what’s the catch?

The impact of agile working on mental health is generally assumed to be a good one. Give people space and time away from the office and it allows them to balance work with other important life commitments, not to mention enabling them to work to their suited hours. A refreshed, well-rested employee is a happy and productive employee – or so the idea goes.

But there is one significant downside to never leaving “the office.”

Randstad found that 55 percent of employees in Asia-Pacific believe the freedom of flexible work arrangements will interfere with their personal lives.

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As more companies provide employees with digital devices such as smartphones and laptops, workers may feel compelled to be “always-on‟ and are not always sure how and when to disconnect.

However, managing Director at Randstad Singapore Jaya Dass, had a counter to this.

“Digital devices should not cause any unnecessary stress and employers who entrust their staff with the flexibility to work outside of the office at a time that works best for them are encouraged to respect employees working hours,” Dass told reporters.

He stipulated that, for the set-up to work, “employees who are given the freedom should also have a clear sense of their responsibilities, provide timely updates to their co-workers and keep to their deadlines.”

Flexible work is the future

While employees seem to have delivered a verdict in favour of agile working, businesses have been far slower to embrace the concept and the office still reins supreme the world over. Sixty-eight percent of workers still work in traditional settings globally, despite the growing desire for change.

But it is likely only a matter of time before business falls into step with demand. As global recruiter Hays says, “flexible work is here to stay.”

The ILO went so far as to call on governments to introduce policy and incentives to encourage companies to adopt the practice due to its all-round positive impact.

Not only is it known to “improve employee morale and attitudes,” but it can also “enhance individual work performance… improve company productivity, quality and, ultimately, the sustainability of firm performance.” – What’s not to like?