Tech-based flexible working conjures up the independent consultant tapping on her tablet with a latte to hand. But the picture may not be so positive.
Flexible working time and flexible places of work are nothing new. But advances in information and communications technology have added a new dimension to flexibility, allowing workers to connect virtually with colleagues, clients and business partners anytime, anywhere. ICT has opened the door to new ways of organising work, resulting in much more flexibility around when and where tasks are performed. We are shifting from a regular, bureaucratic and ‘factory-based’ working-time pattern towards a more flexible model of work.
Around one fifth of workers in the European Union telework from home or engage in ICT-based mobile work: they work, occasionally or regularly, from somewhere other than a main place of work—such as a train or a coffee shop—depending heavily on mobile devices such as a laptop or tablet. There is variation by country: as the chart below illustrates, proportions range from 8 per cent in Italy to 33 per cent in Denmark.
Percentage of workers doing telework and ICT-based mobile work, by employment status
This diversity across Europe is due to a combination of factors, such as a country’s affinity for technology, the availability and quality of its technological infrastructure, the management culture and the drive for higher productivity within companies, and employees’ needs for spatial and temporal flexibility to balance work demands with family commitments and other personal responsibilities.
Increased flexibility is generally perceived as a positive feature of job quality. It gives workers more autonomy and control, allowing them to combine work with a variety of life situations and to make choices according to their individual preferences. This potentially boosts productivity while enabling a better work-life balance. From a labour-market perspective, ICT-supported flexibility offers better employment opportunities for some groups of workers—such as those with disabilities, illnesses or care responsibilities, whom a standard work schedule doesn’t suit, or those living in remote areas with few local employers.
But this type of working also has downsides. Paradoxically, the elevated autonomy quite often results in people working longer hours or at higher intensity, because they use the flexibility to supplement rather than replace office time. Or they feel pressurised to do more work in exchange for the flexibility provided by the employer or because of excessive workload.
Sometimes, this situation can be a result of work organisation but it can also be due to the worker’s desire to prove their performance is unaffected or even enhanced by their location. As a result, teleworkers and ICT-based mobile workers who work more intensively are more likely to report high stress, anxiety, sleeping disorders, headaches and eye strain.
A new phenomenon is being observed among these workers—virtual ‘presenteeism’. Presenteeism is when employees go to work in spite of being sick. Again, it is nothing new and is often related to the employee’s fear of negative consequences if they miss work. But ICT is facilitating people to work from home when they’re not feeling well, which is likely to impair their performance. What such behaviour could mean for the recovery process and their long-term health has not been explored.
The self-employed comprise a section of the high-autonomy workforce likely to embrace flexibility-enabling ICT, in line with the shift to a service economy. And there is anecdotal evidence that for at least some types of freelancers—such as consultants or those in the creative industries—clients value their ability to adapt their working hours and to operate from different locations.
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So far, little research has been carried out on ICT-supported flexible working among the self-employed. The available evidence is generally positive: it supports their entrepreneurial initiatives and fosters their professional prospects, while helping them overcome professional isolation by keeping them in virtual touch with colleagues.
But this group also risks having lesser rest periods than others who are self-employed. They are not covered by labour law, which at least in some countries is already addressing the ‘right to disconnect’. So it is particularly important for them to find individual ways to do so—balancing the business need with their own health and wellbeing.
More on flexible working
On 13 June 2019 from 15:00 to 16:30 CET, Eurofound will host the webinar ‘Flexible working in the digital age: is everyone a winner?’. You can sign up to watch and participate at the link below. The video and other material will be made available after the event.