Is technology really the answer to flexible working?

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Oliver Shaw, Chief Commercial Officer of Cascade HR, considers whether technology has finally proven the key to unlocking flexible working in the UK or if it is shackling us to the workplace more than ever?

Talking about the role of technology within the flexible working arena is hardly ground-breaking. For decades, technological advancements have been hailed as pivotal to developments within the employment landscape. But this year, conversation appears to have reached another level.

In an article for Open Access Government in June 2018, for instance, Richard Morris, UK CEO of International Workplace Group (IWG), explained the extent to which technology-driven shifts have caused significant social change. And in September, HR headlines homed in on a study by Capita and Citrix, which stressed that an inability to quickly introduce new IT services is restricting organisations’ flexibility proposition, and consequently their competitiveness.

Again, these articles probably just reiterated what we already know. Smartphones allow us to send and receive emails wherever we are; savvy cloud servers provide secure data access irrespective of location; video conferencing advancements make personalised communication possible on a global scale.

Technology is opening up flexible working, home working, offshore working and many other opportunities. It presents choice. In the eyes of many, it has also made the 4-day week possible, thanks to the productivity efficiencies that are now being reaped in the workplace.

The praise surrounding the transformational power of technology is therefore well-founded.

However, it must also be acknowledged that tech is – in many instances – driving an ‘always on’ culture. So yes, it may have helped banish the traditional 9-5, but if this has simply been to make way for a ‘provide outputs as required 24/7’ culture, is this really a win?

There can be no denying that technology can intrude on personal lives, making the holy grail of a work-life balance hard to attain. Is this a matter of choice? Yes, to some extent. It requires discipline not to check emails at the side of the pool on holiday, for instance. But lock the phone in the hotel room safe and it is far easier to achieve that much-needed switch off. Some people find this accessibility compelling of course and relish how easy it is to stay connected with apps like Slack. Others feel guilty if they enjoy time away.

The real problem arises when expectations dictate how individuals use technology and interact with the workplace during their own time. Before emails where constantly available, everywhere, people could leave the office – and work – behind. Now, employer and output requests can be dealt with during all hours, and a new presenteeism culture often dominates.

Is that good for stress levels? Mental health? Family wellbeing? No.

Tech alone cannot bear all the blame, and naturally it bears benefits as the trend towards flexible working is inexorable. But people must ask themselves whether tech is helping them be more efficient or whether it is actually a time thief. The only way to combat this theft though, is with discipline.

The problem that is harder to overcome, is the social inclination that being ‘always on’, is the secret to ‘getting on’. If that’s the case, how long can responsible employers ask people to work for nothing?