The way we think about work is still conditioned by Industrial Age assumptions. Despite technology freeing us up from fixed time and place, we still think of work as being organised into jobs that have a specified “workplace” and a defined set of “working hours”. By law every employee in the UK has to have a contract stating these facts.
Then some employers are prepared to offer “Flexible Working” as an employee benefit, granting some variation to the fixed hours and/or location. Often this is not available for the first 6 months in any job, as if people somehow have to earn it as a right. (The UK legislation reinforces this point by only giving a right to request after 26 weeks employment). The clear message is that some employers are prepared to put themselves out by offering variations to the normal fixed working arrangements, and employees should be very grateful for their generosity.
The most common of these benefits is part-time working. This implies that there is some law of nature that work has to be divided into packages that can be performed in 35 to 40 hours per week spread over 5 days and anything else is not normal. Employers are bing “flexible” by being prepared to consider that work can be divided into different sized units and there is nothing sacrosanct about the five day week. But the result isn’t actually flexible working. There’s nothing flexible about working four days a week instead of five if the time and place are still fixed.
Another growing work pattern, thanks to technology, is home working. Again much of this is just a shift in working arrangements and is far from “flexible”. If you work from home every Wednesday that may be convenient but it’s hardly flexible. If you can choose when to work from home and are allowed to make that decision, then maybe there’s some flexibility starting to emerge.
Even the most flexible of flexible working schemes still starts from the premise that there is a fixed basis from which to vary. Salaries are based on “full time” hours so part-time workers can be paid pro rata regardless of output. Jobs are based on one workplace and then employees are given smart phones and laptops which allow them to work anywhere. We have a fundamental misunderstanding of work in the Digital Age.
We are stuck in a rut. We have model of work based on a master-servant employment relationship that is totally out of date. We pay people for their time almost regardless of their output or added value. We use money to bribe people to come to work when they would prefer to be doing something else. Presumably that’s why it’s called “compensation”. We encourage long hours by rewarding people for effort instead of results.
Let’s look again at work. It’s an activity that people perform to achieve a result, often with a reward involved. People do “charitable” work unpaid because they feel that are contributing to a good cause. Parents work hard at bringing up their children but are not paid for it. Their rewards are much deeper than money. They are fundamental human needs to feel appreciated, recognised and loved. They appeal to our sense of achievement and satisfaction at creating something ourselves. And they contribute to our sense of belonging and self-worth.
Wouldn’t it be great to make all work so satisfying that people would do it regardless of pay? This may be a lofty aim but there is one simple step to start on this journey. It’s to take a fresh look at how we get work done, throwing out all the assumptions based on the outdated industrial model of jobs. Let’s consider work as an activity with an outcome and let’s reward that outcome. The rewards can include money as an important indicator of the worth of the work but this should not overshadow the other factors that provide genuine motivation. It’s now 60 years since Hertzberg pointed out that money is a “hygiene factor” and we still haven’t learned the lesson.
If we make work satisfying we don’t have to force people to do it against their will. We can agree with them the outcomes that they will achieve and leave them to get on with it. It will be intrinsic motivation not enforced by an external authority. The current model is to control the effort and hope for the results. We insist people sit at a workstation for defined hours and attempting to control the work they do, regardless of where and when they actually work at their best. The sensible approach is to recognise that work has a purpose and to reward the outcomes. Then we no longer need to control when, where or even how the work is done. We certainly don’t need to insist it’s done at times and places that are inconvenient to the workers, just because we want to monitor their efforts.
So by definition work is something that is naturally flexible. It’s the structure of jobs and positions in conventional hierarchical organisations that make it rigid. Then the very people who have made it rigid, the employers who dictate the rules, offer some flexibility as a concession to their employees and feel good about it. They take great pride in helping people with their work-life balance as if they own the time of the individual in the first place. It’s an arrogant assumption and doesn’t get the best out of people.
Maybe employers are able to offer something that resembles a flexible approach to jobs. Perhaps it could be called “flexible employment”. But you can’t call work “flexible” when it already is, so let’s ban the phrase. And let’s look at work in a new light. Let’s measure outputs not inputs. Let’s trust employees to make their own minds up about when and where to get the work done. Let’s recognise that we are now in the 21st Century with technology that allows work to be done in different ways and with people who want to keep control of their lives.