The pros and cons of flexible and remote work

Mark Eggers, 7 min read

The pros and cons of flexible and remote work

Somewhere, sometime, long ago, it was decided that the hours of work fell between 9 and 5. This decision was actually made by the Ford motor group company in 1926 and has not been subject to review. Until now.

The New York Times has found that many millennials are switching jobs and even taking up to a 30% pay cut, in favour of flexible work. Companies like PWC and Dell Computing have made flexible work arrangements a part of their standard work arrangements. And, this year, LinkedIn announced that flexibility is 'no longer a generous perk.' The shift is here.

However, like all things, there is some reason for scepticism. Yahoo implemented a flexible work policy, then promptly removed it. As did IBM. They had their reasons: first, that it lessened collaboration and creativity due to missing out on those daily run-ins that come naturally in enclosed spaces. Second, that people slacked off.

So what's right and wrong? Where is the world heading? Let's discuss.

Why we're moving away from 9 to 5

9 to 5 covers the substantial part of the day. It varies depending on the time of year and location, but mostly, 9 to 5 takes up most of our daylight hours. By putting work between these hours we've decided that work is our primary task for the day, and everything else is peripheral. To quote Miss Dolly P, '9 to 5, they've got you where they want you.'

But, to steal another line from our girl, 'You've got dreams they'll never take away.' We all have ambitions. What we're realising, now, is that ambitions aren't always career-related. Contrary to the public discourse for the past 100 years or so, we're not necessarily to money what Augustus Gloop is to chocolate; we do have other priorities. Family. Friends. Watching season 4 of Rick & Morty (or for my wife, season 3 of The Crown). These things are as important to us, if not more, than our career ambitions.

And, for that matter, por que no los dos? We live in one of the richest countries in the world, in the richest time in history. If there is a time for work-life balance, it's now.

The pros: reconciling ambition and life

You can want two things. To be a parent and have a successful career. To sleep eight hours and ace your presentation. To go on holiday and also get that promotion you're going for. We often think of life and career as mutually exclusive, but are they really? If we switch over from an hour-based system to an output-based system, I believe that we really can have it all. Our acceptance of the idea that the work-life balance cannot exist for truly successful people perpetuates a lot of the problems in work-culture today. Here's how:

  • It breeds a culture of overwork. People believe that greater hours mean greater success. However, there's an obvious problem with this: no one performs their best when they're overworked. Many companies offer perks like free meals and Ubers home to keep their employees in the office for longer, which, in turn, leads to exhaustion and fewer hours of sleep. Lack of sleep has been declared a public health emergency in America, and it's been estimated that the US economy sustains an economic loss of up to $411 billion a year due to insufficient sleep. More hours mean more work, but they don't mean more good quality work. We need to challenge our assumptions.
  • It penalises efficiency. If someone finishes their assigned work in 8 hours, but are expected to stay 10, you're effectively punishing their quick work. Soon you may find that what would take someone a couple of hours may take them four, as they learn that there's no benefit for quick work. It's the same amount of hours. Why try harder? Why be efficient? You may have heard stories where employees (especially in agency land) were encouraged to hold work that was completed earlier than expected back, so as not to raise questions around its quality if it was completed in less time. Insane!
  • It perpetuates gender inequality. Twice as many men than women are denied flexible work requests. Denying these requests, however, doesn't just impact men. When flexible work arrangements are denied to men, the responsibility to look after children and manage the household is then shifted back onto women, thus perpetuating our traditional gender roles, and denying women the ability to dedicate themselves to their career. If we are to help women in their ambitions, we, therefore, have to allow men flexible careers.

Even when men do have flexibility approved, they're often met with societal resistance. A good friend of mine recently discovered this when he switched to a four-day workweek to take care of his daughter. It stunned his co-workers and friends - what kind of man would want to spend time with his child and support his wife's career? We think that in 2020 we've come so far, but until we both practice and assume that raising a child is a burden to be shared equally, we're nowhere near the end.

Further, the problem with flexible work isn't that performance is worse; it's that we presume it to be. We assume that because Steve left early to go to his son's touch footy game that he's less dedicated to the job. And that might be true. Or it might not. Maybe after the game, he finished his tasks for the day. Maybe he came in earlier to make up for the time. Maybe today he just had less on his plate, but he's going to have a big week next week. Having other priorities doesn't mean work isn't a priority.

I'm a co-founder of my business and I leave work on the dot at 5 pm every day. Why? Because it means I can get home at 5.50 pm in time to hang out with my girls, do their bath, read them a book and help get them down to sleep. Before helping with the dinner and spending some quality time with my wife; Netflix, chats, the lot.

Does this make me less dedicated to my product and business? Some might say not a chance. Some people I've met in my journey tell me I've created a 'lifestyle' business because I'm not doing 70 hours a week looking to create the next unicorn. Hours are irrelevant. For me, it's about being smart with your time. I could stare at Netflix on the train ride home from North Sydney to Rhodes, or I could smash out 36 minutes of highly effective work in a flow state. It's about output, not hours logged.

Another thing to note is that flexible work arrangements don't just benefit family commitments, but all kinds of commitments. What's often unsaid when talking about work-life balance is that raising a family is merely one of a million reasons why someone might need a bit of elasticity in their work schedule. Pets, illness, volunteering and sport. These are just a few. If the technology allows, why not prioritise more than one area?

Work isn't a cake - it's that magical re-filling Tim Tam packet. There's always more work, and there's always more you can do. It doesn't cease to exist outside the hours of 9 and 5. Work is an activity, not a place. If you can't make 9, try for 10 or even 8. If the work gets done, what's the problem?

The answer to this comes in two parts. First, this question is an assumption. We assume that without supervision, people won't do the right thing. They'll abuse privileges, take advantage. So my advice in answering this question is to look at the evidence.

To take my earlier example, when Steve left work early, did he just ditch altogether? Or did he let people know his plans, and how he intended to accommodate the lost time? If someone's demonstrating to you that they're committed to accommodating both work and life, what are you worried about? Maybe you need to get back to work instead of worrying about how many minutes someone has sat at their desk today.

Second, if someone is demonstrating to you that they can't be trusted to work flexibly, then there's either a problem in the hiring process or a problem in the culture. By the time you're working full-time, you are an adult. You can be expected to manage your own time and responsibilities. One of my team told me the other week that she works that much harder and more efficiently because we allow her to work remotely from her parent's rural property whenever she likes.

If people are demonstrating to you that they can't be trusted with responsibility, then perhaps you hired the wrong person. Or, maybe it's endemic: there's a problem in your work culture where people don't feel motivated to work, or as though it matters whether they work or not. Either way, this is a problem in the workplace, not flexible and remote work as a whole.

The scoreboard

Here's the 30 second summary of where flexible and remote work sit on the pros and cons scoreboard:

Pros

  • It allows people to accommodate both their work ambitions as well as their personal ambitions.
  • It helps alleviate gender inequalities by allowing men to share more of the burden of raising and family.
  • It rewards efficiency and reduces procrastination by switching from a time-based to an output-based work system.
  • People will repay you 10 fold because you have shown they are trusted and valuable members of your team.

Cons

  • Remote work may reduce creativity and collaboration as face-to-face contact is reduced.
  • If your culture is weak, there may be a risk of people using flexible work as paid time off.

In my view, there's no con to flexible and remote work that can't be remedied. Build your work culture, hire people you can trust, and you'll find they'll get on with it. Here's a little secret: when people are happy, they tend to produce better work and work harder. So, facilitating work-life balance isn't just in the interests of employees but of the business as a whole. Or, in sum:

Flexible work: 1.

9 to 5: 0.


Mark Eggers

Mark heads up the Sales team at Yarno. He loves to chat, which is fortunate because he’s very good at it. He's our digital Swiss Army Knife, always armed with a solution to any problem.

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