Flexible work is fast becoming a mainstream part of business life all over the world, even though it’s been with us long before the pandemic took hold. But how has it developed in the past, and what does this mean for businesses exploring it now for the first time?
It’s a topic that’s explored in detail in the fourth episode of our podcast series: “A Week in My Flexible Working Life” (available on Spotify and iOS). The interviewee is Eero Vaara, professor of organizations and impact at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, and visiting distinguished professor at Aalto University in Finland. His extensive experience of flexible work and how it’s developed gives fascinating insight to the state of play, both past and present; listen to the full episode with Eero on Spotify or iOS, and read on here for more on what was discussed:
Finland leading the way
Eero starts by explaining how Finland has been a world leader in giving employees flexibility, and that it was made possible by common ground between employees, employers and authorities in making it possible. “I think Finland is in some way a forerunner in these things,” he says. “There’s a long tradition of many attempts over time between the employer and employee associations and the government to make sense of what’s happening in working life.
“When we’re talking about flexible working, there have been attempts to put in place legislation, which is actually very rare. The Working Hours Act came into effect at the beginning of 2020, as a base for organizing flexible work, time and space, but those practices were already happening way before 2020.”
A level approach
Over the years, Eero has noticed a major trend among different organizations adopting flexible work. He’s discovered that ‘flatter’ organizations – those with a more equitable and open management structure – found it far easier to adapt and gain buy-in than those with more hierarchical structures.
“Flat hierarchies have been helping in terms of avoiding unnecessary red tape,” he recalls. “Organizations have this spirit of people working together, and so people are empowered to take charge of projects and issues. I think this is the best possible basis for being very successful in dealing with flexible working. Older, bigger, more complex organizations can be more difficult in the sense that there are a lot of practices and regulations in place, and it’s hard to change those.”
Getting everyone involved
Connected to the previous point, Eero strongly feels that when businesses start to explore their flexible work options, everyone should have a chance to contribute to the discussion. Only through this collaborative approach can a model be found that works for everyone.
“The policies around flexible working for instance, shouldn’t be coming from the top, but should be something that different stakeholders would focus on together.” he says. “Then they would allow people in different parts of the organizations to themselves agree upon what’s best for these particular people.”
Assessing each use case
Amid all the buzz around flexible work right now, it’s important to remember that it’s more suited to some people and some jobs than others. As Eero mentions, this applies to employees as well, and will influence their choice of career.
“We are easily forgetting that there are a number of occupations and professions where you really have to be there [in person].” he says. “I suppose if you wanted a flexible working life, you wouldn’t necessarily apply for a job in a factory that made cars, for example. There will be certain types of organizations where people default to that pragmatism.”
Right tech, right time
Eero also references the key role that technology has played in enabling the move towards flexible work. And although the pandemic was the catalyst that set the ball rolling, it couldn’t have been done without widespread, accessible innovation like video calling. “Technology has really enabled much of this revolution in the way we work,” he explains. “We couldn’t have imagined this 30 years ago, 20 years ago, maybe even ten years ago. In a way, the pandemic has come at a crucial moment where all the stars are aligned.”