International Expansion Blog

Future of the Global Workplace: The Workplace Flexibility Conundrum

By Gareth Jarman, Director, HR Advisory, Radius

Gareth Jarman, Director, HR Advisory, Radius

Countries around the world are grappling with change as work increasingly goes mobile.

While workers in the US — particularly millennials — are clamoring for a more flexible workplace, the picture abroad is murkier, with some countries moving in the opposite direction.

Companies that plan to send employees overseas need to be aware of the differences and prepare workers for organizations that view white-collar working hours in a very different light from their counterparts in the US.

Empowered by technology that lets them stay connected anywhere, American workers increasingly see flexibility as an important — and sometimes expected — benefit. In a 2015 Workplace Trends study, 75% of workers ranked flexibility as a top advantage. Employers with work-flex programs said flexibility improved employee satisfaction, increased productivity and helped with talent retention and recruiting.

Millennials, especially, crave a flexible workplace, with some saying they would take a pay cut, skip a promotion or move in exchange for better work/life balance.

Research from Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work cites studies claiming flexible working hours may reduce stress and lead to better work/family balance.

But are the claims true?

Future of the Global Workplace: The Workplace Flexibility ConundrumThe Other Side of the Coin

In the Workplace Trends study, 45% of employees — some of whom must have rated flexibility as a top benefit — complained that they don’t have enough time for personal activities. One in five spent more than 20 hours a week of personal time working. And 65% said their manager expects them to be reachable outside the office.

Smarter organisations are taking a considered approach to their workplace flexibility policies, placing flexibility in the context of employee wellbeing. Providing work-life balance is increasingly a central contributor to recruitment, retention and employee engagement for workers the world over. And creating a culture of balance through more progressive leadership is certainly a good step to recognizing the “double edged sword” of 24/7 technological connectedness, which can lead to stress, burnout and employee churn.

Around the Globe

It is this worrisome aspect of flexibility that has influenced lawmakers in France and Germany, both of which have passed laws to restrict employers from contacting workers after hours. In France, union workers are now guaranteed 11 hours of uninterrupted time away from the office, and not just physically — employers are required to let them disconnect through technology.

Though the law describes disconnection as a worker’s right, not an obligation, some companies have stopped sending email after hours, and others have even shut down their servers to prevent it.

In Germany, government managers are banned from contacting workers after hours, and many private companies have followed suit with restrictions of their own.

The UK, on the other hand, passed a law last year giving employees a “right to request flexible working,” limiting the instances in which employers can refuse requests to work from home, change their hours, work part-time or make other arrangements outside the 9-to-5 framework.

Greece, its economy in tatters as it struggles to repay debt and remain in the European Union, saw fit to repeal a law mandating a five-day work week, and has reduced the mandatory hours of rest that employers — those  who are still in business — must  offer their workers.

In the Middle East, governments hit by plummeting energy prices are starting to promote more flexible and business-friendly policies as they begin to look beyond the oil industry to other means of economic development.

In a 2015 EY survey involving almost 10,000 full-time employed adults from eight countries, Japan and China were found to be among the least likely countries to offer flexibility to workers. Employers sending staff to these and other countries should take time to learn about their laws and attitudes surrounding workplace flexibility.

And workers going abroad need to have some flexibility of their own in countries that — like the US — are struggling with the attempt to balance the demands of work and home in an increasingly connected world.

For more information on global HR employment trends and best practices, watch our webinar “Scaling Your International HR Operations: Creating Efficient Systems for Hiring, Paying and Retaining a Global Workforce.


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