For creative and office-based professionals, the days of a strict nine-to-five routine are quickly fading into the past.
With advances in technology, the expectation that employees should be ready to answer calls or e-mails at all hours is becoming universal.
On top of this, calls for flexible working arrangements for more workers are growing in strength. Supporters say flexible hours can improve people’s work-life balance and encourage underrepresented demographics, particularly women, to enter the workforce.
Earlier this month, however, experts at the British Psychological Association warned that such practices could do more harm than good, encouraging an “always on” culture that could have a heavy psychological toll.
The fear is that the loss of a strict routine could lead to people constantly refreshing e-mails or answering calls, keeping work-related stress at a persistently high level.
Around one fifth of all workers work on flexible arrangements today, but the reality could be more widespread. According to a 2011 Regus study, more than half of all Maltese employees regularly work more than nine hours a day and 65 per cent take work home with them at least once a week.
“Research shows that people who have a lot of flexibility on where and when to work typically work a lot more than average,” according to Anna Borg, director of the Labour Studies Centre at the University of Malta. “On the other hand, they also report higher levels of job satisfaction. People who have worked flexibly rarely want to return to a rigid structure.”
We have the technology to make it work, so why not use it
The culprit, Dr Borg suggests, is not flexible work itself but technology. In many fields, the expectation of immediate replies has increased across the industry, so even if companies were motivated to take measures to protect their employees from overwork, they would find them difficult to implement.
Sociology professor Godfrey Baldacchino – noting ironically that he was responding to this newspaper’s request for comment outside office hours – agreed that for most workers, whether on official flexible structures or not, the distinction between work and leisure time had grown increasingly blurred.
“The trick, as with other aspects of workplace organisation, is to secure a (at times elusive) fine balance,” he said. “I know colleagues who make it a point to refuse to answer e-mails over weekends – alas, I am not one of them – while others will try to carve out hours or days of downtime away from work; going on a trip abroad may be the best way around that.”
Trade unions, according to Prof. Baldacchino, have already raised fears that flexibility could ultimately be a guise for the elimination of overtime and associated perks and premiums. “Flexible working arrangements could still prove to be win-win situations,” he added.
“They suit those who wish to maintain a careerist orientation while raising young children, and employers benefit by keeping capable staff who may otherwise be forced to resign.”
Mark Debono, founder of internet marketing firm Systemato, whose employees all work remotely and on flexible structures, believes the risk of overwork is clear, but this is balanced out by employees’ freedom to work to a schedule that suited their own rhythms.
“I do sometimes worry that my employees work too much,” he said. “I encourage them to rest, but often it’s their personal expectations that drive them, not mine. If it becomes an expectation of round-the-clock availability, though, that’s a problem: it takes a psychological toll and the work suffers.”
Ultimately, according to Mr Debono, the system has proved more efficient for both the company and its employees: “We have the technology to make it work, so why not use it.”
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