Flexible working hours: great idea or innovation disaster?

When Yahoo told its employees it was dropping flexible working practices in favour of having them come into the office earlier this year, the reaction was not just vocal – it was ferocious. Supporters of increased flexible working appeared from out of the global wilderness to decry Yahoo’s move, saying CEO Marissa Mayer was wrong, just plain wrong.

It didn’t matter that very few (if any) of these commentators had intimate knowledge of Yahoo’s current culture and future goals or that the company had said its decision wasn’t a statement on teleworking generally. A red flag had been waved by a struggling iconic brand and the flexible working bulls charged mercilessly.

But was the Yahoo backlash warranted? The bulls would, of course, scream a resounding “yes”.  And they do have a growing body of research to back their case along with many case studies, including in Australia.

An International Labor Organisation report titled Equality at work: The continuing challenge, for example, noted that flexible working offers a variety of benefits including “reduced absenteeism, increased ability to attract and retain skilled staff, and improvements in productivity and time management”.

In Australia, the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life’s annual research, Australian Work and Life Index, surveys over 2800 workers. It found that workers who receive flexible working arrangements often have lower interference from work into their private lives.

As a result, the Australian government, like its peers globally, has sought to boost the adoption of flexible working and recently introduced changes to the Fair Work Act (2009) to this end. Whether more Australian employees adopt flexible working, however, is still not guaranteed, and not everyone is convinced.

Indeed, the same University of South Australia research also concluded that the number of those requesting a change in their work arrangements to be more flexible remains at just above 20 per cent and has been at this level since 2009.

Further, running counter to the flexible working trend but with far less publicity has been a renaissance in the belief that face-to-face interactions – often referred to as “face time” – provide the best opportunities for seeding much-needed ideas and innovation into an organisation.

One of the main components of this argument is that “water-cooler chats” or off-the-cuff conversations in a hall or elevator that just don’t happen when employees are working remotely, for instance, produce the greatest results. This is one of the reasons Yahoo’s CEO gave for the company’s decision and was echoed by other organisations including Mayer’s former employer Google.

While we are yet to see whether Yahoo’s choice was the right one, what has clearly been missed by many in this (arguably false) debate is that Yahoo made a decision about Yahoo, not about flexible working for other organisations.

As the jury is still out the hoary adage, “horses for courses” is one that business leaders would be wise to keep in mind when considering their own circumstances and reaching their own conclusions on flexible working.

Share This Page