Charlotte Aguilar-Millan has written her first post in our Emerging Fellows program. Through a brief review, she inspects the flexibility of working within European socioeconomic contexts. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Ever since companies emerged in the Seventeenth Century they have evolved and changed as their operating conditions have changed. As successive changes have occurred, the workspace has changed with it. From the small office of Ebenezer Scrooge to the vast factory of Dilbert. Within the 20th century there has been a significant shift in the style of a working office from a closed smaller office style to what can be seen today in open plan offices.
As employees are spending more time at work, and as the working career is lengthening, the workforce is now taking more ownership of what is expected from a workplace. Employees today have higher expectations for their working life. They no longer expect a long retirement to look forward to. Instead they aspire to live their golden years along with their working years. With this new expectation, there is an increase in the need for flexibility within the workplace.
One such way companies have been adapting to these needs is with more flexibility on working hours and location. With rising intangible based operations, there is now a desire and opportunity on the part of staff to work where it is convenient for them. This has been incorporated into staff benefit packages. It is now a standard feature for a vast number of careers including consultancy, technical support engineers and even accountants – the service based creative economy.
Staff are able to be based at home to complete work and only go into the office when the need arises. Employers, as well as employees, experience benefits such as reduced stress from the absence of a daily commute. Staff feel more focused on their work by leaving the noisy open planned office and an empowerment to shape the classic 9-5 working day to their needs.
The new type of working environment does however have a large stigma attached to it. Working from home has not come without side-affects. Research has suggested that those who regularly work from home also experience a fall in opportunities for promotion in comparison to performance. This has placed the onus on some employees to feel that they must be available for longer hours when working at home. This is an area which employers are able to exploit as more employees receive a work phone or work laptop in order to work from home. There is also an expectation that these are kept on at weekends and evenings.
The company of today has had to adapt to lifestyle changes in their employees lives. This has seen, for example, the development of ‘peternity leave’ where staff are able to take time off to buy a new pet. Other changes have arisen as a result of legislation, including changes in parental leave. In the UK, legislation mandated that where both parents desire to split maternity leave within the first year of a child’s life, an employer must allow this. Other countries within the European Union have legislated initiatives, including Sweden paying a ‘gender equality’ bonus to parents who adopt this shared parental leave and Germany adding two months of parental leave to those parents who split the leave.
While structural unemployment rates continue to fall – for example in the UK from a high in 1984 of 12% to 4% in 2018 – this allows employees an opportunity to seek the benefits that resonate most to them rather than accepting those which an employer offers. As a result, companies have had to accept change in order to attract staff.
Employees are now aware of the opportunity for further flexibility in their work place. Will a growing desire for flexible working manifest itself into a global gig economy where employees no longer have just one employer but the flexibility to pick and choose work when suits them? If a gig economy manifests itself, will this see the end to companies as we know them? What, exactly, does a disembodied company look like?
© Charlotte Aguilar-Millan 2019