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How flexible working can increase productivity

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Here in the UK, we work a whopping 42 hours a week on average — that’s the longest in the EU (Denmark is 37 hours, for comparison). But in the same report by the Trades Union Congress, Britain ranks 14th for output per worker. So why, despite putting in the hours, are we less productive than other countries?

It could be the attitude that more desk time equals more productivity, whether that’s staying late to look more committed or coming in when you’re sick. In fact, working fewer or more flexible hours could actually be the key to upping productivity. Here’s how…

What exactly is flexible working?

The phrase flexible working crops up in almost any conversation about work-life balance these days, but what does it actually mean?

There are different ways a job can be flexible. Time flexibility includes working part-time, flexitime, reduced hours, compressed hours or job-sharing. Space flexibility might mean swapping a permanent desk for a hot-desking system or, thanks to modern technology, you might not even come into the office at all, with options to work remotely.

What are the benefits for employees?

We all thrive in different conditions, so giving workers more flexibility and control over how and where they work can only be a good thing.

  • A better work-life balance: This could be as simple as changing your hours to do the school run, or working from home once a week to save the time, cost and stress of a long commute.
  • Better mental wellbeing: Working for a company that trusts you to manage your own time can feel freeing. One study at a Fortune 500 company trialled a flexibility programme and found employees in the pilot group reported higher levels of job satisfaction and less psychological stress and burnout than their colleagues.

Is everyone entitled to flexible working in the UK?

Working in a flexible way improves employees’ wellbeing and the law in the UK has changed to reflect this. If you’ve been with a company for more than 26 weeks, you can request flexible working once a year. You’ll hear back within three months, and employers need a “sound business reason” for denying requests.

Man sits on a coffee shop working on his laptop

So, what are the benefits for the employer?

Flexible working doesn’t just benefit the workers. By offering flexible roles, companies can:

  • Diversify their talent pool: Flexible roles appeal to those who might not be able to work a traditional nine-to-five, office-based job, whether that’s due to a disability or caring responsibilities.
  • Future-proof their talent: Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025 (Deloitte), and this demographic has a very different outlook on work. They’re drawn to benefits such as flexible hours, trust and annual leave just as much as traditional benefits such as pay and pensions.
  • Attract and retain the best employees: Work-life balance is not just a ‘nice-to-have’ anymore. Recruitment International reports that almost one in five people left their last role because of poor work-life balance.
  • Reduce presenteeism: The concept of presenteeism means workers feel the need to be in the office even when they’re unwell. With flexible working, employees can simply work from home if they have a minor illness such as a cold, where they’re not spreading germs to their colleagues and will feel better more quickly, too.
  • Reduce absenteeism and increase engagement: With less stress and the ability to manage existing health conditions, flexible working leads to lower levels of absenteeism and, in most cases, increased working hours.

How does all this affect productivity?

Ah, the P-word. Our modern culture is obsessed with productivity. In a business sense, we can think of it as measured output, and many companies tend to (wrongly) worry that the cost of flexible working and increased autonomy is less overall output.

Actually, the opposite is true. Recent data from Canada Life Group Insurance found 77% of employees in the UK felt flexible working made them more productive. The same survey found that only 17% of people who work from home feel regularly affected by workplace stress, compared to 37% who work in office-based cubicles. Lowering stress levels and increasing employee wellbeing boosts productivity, as staff aren’t worrying about other things.

With the rest of Europe streaks ahead of us in terms of productivity, there’s never been a better time for the UK to take a look at outdated workplace traditions and usher in a more productive, more modern way of working.

Like this? Read our feature on how to minimise employee stress in an always-on environment.

Image credits: Stocksy, iStock

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