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Employees About Working Flexibly: ‘Easy to Feel Guilty’

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A new study shows that the main challenge of flexible working is to set boundaries between work and private life. ‘Setting the boundaries is the really difficult part; many tend to work too much, for example by checking emails in the evenings without defining it as working time. Clearly, there is a lot we can improve,’ says Sofie Bjärntoft, researcher in flexible working at University of Gävle.

The study shows that the organisation has a great responsibility in ensuring that flexible work arrangements are beneficial for the employees.

Group interviews with employees who work flexibly provided the researchers in Gävle with concrete suggestions on how to promote a good working environment. These suggestions were then divided according to whether the issue was the reponsibility of the organisation, the group, or the individual.

‘To focus on how the organisation needs to adapt is new. Previously, the individual has been the primary focus. Including concrete suggestions for improvement is also new,’ Sofie Bjärntoft says.

Some argue that work-from-home (WFH) means we are literally on from the moment we wake up, to the moment we got to bed – there is no travel and interaction between. It is full on. 

Emma-Jane Taylor, founder and director of The Works Company explains: ‘Flexible working is not an easy box to tick, you need strict personal management on this. What are your hours, what is your rule on technology – for me; technology is not allowed upstairs and in personal lounge, kitchen spaces. I have set hours, and make sure that around this I turn technology off and enjoy life and that I enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner each day.

‘I like to get outside and all the things that come from the privilege of living – fitness, nice foods and focusing on my well-being. Essential to be mentally, emotionally and physically fit to maintain an all round balance to your working day and personal life. Without those three forget it; people struggle.’

Employers: a manager who can adapt leadership practices

The vast majority of suggestions concerned the organisation and were mainly about leadership. Employees would like the manager to:

  • Give instructions on when and where to work
  • Be in touch more and give clear feedback, which shouldn’t be just work-related
  • Contribute to the group climate, get the group to work together as a team

Any organisation needs a shared vision and guidelines on flexible working. Moreover, the manager should adapt those to the group in question and communicate to the group that they should be working as a team.

‘Employers need to state clearly what hours you can work and when and how often you are expected to be on site. It was not clearly stated, so whether you were allowed to work remotely and how often you needed to be on site seemed to depend on the manager in question.

‘In addition, the organisation should provide support and training to managers to develop and adapt their leadership to flexible working.’

Support in setting boundaries

It is important to provide support so that employees can find strategies for setting work-life boundaries. Otherwise, there is a risk that work becomes limitless, which means that there will be little time for recovery, and recovery is essential for the individual.

Managers need to help employees to set boundaries between work and free time through regular check-ins with employees.

Work group: rules for availability

  • Common rules for availability
  • Open dialogue in the group on how to work flexibly

The group needs to take initiatives to create a good sense of community and form a strategy regarding expectations of availability. For example, use Skype, Teams, or Outlook to communicate while working. Knowing when your colleague is working or will be available is also a good way to reduce stress.

‘Easy to feel guilty’

To work remotely must be acceptable within the group without creating individual guilt or a negative atmosphere in the group.

When someone left early one day and caught up with work in the evening, they easily felt guilty and needed to explain themselves. It feels like people think you’re not working.

How individuals can take responsibility for their own well-being

  • Take your own initiatives to improve the working environment
  • Try to set boundaries to avoid working in your free time
  • Make time for recovery

A key strategy is for individuals to take the initiative to improve their own working environment, for example by bringing up suggestions for improvement with the team or the manager and by setting their own boundaries to make time for recovery.

‘Often, it is the individuals themselves, and not the manager and colleagues, who expect themselves to be available at all times and work more.’

Don’t work in your free time

Sofie Bjärntoft sees boundary-setting regarding the work-life balance as the difficult part of working remotely. The danger is working too much, for example by checking email in the evening without defining it as working time.

‘Don’t work on your own time. For example, you can use your calendar to schedule your working hours and your breaks. In this way you can keep track of how much you work and make sure there’s time for that all-important recovery,’ says Sofie Bjärntoft.

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