Opinion

The old days didn’t include flexible working: Bosses should stop pushing for 1950s permanence

6 min read

05 September 2016

If you thought you worked hard, you should ask your dad or granddad what their career was like at your age. A few short decades ago, the world of work was very different.

According to a recently-published study by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, people in the 1950s worked up to 30 per cent longer hours and took fewer holidays. Looked at in the rear-view mirror of an uncertain world, the security of a probable “job for life” may seem appealing. But it wasn’t all rosy – long hours took their toll, meaning less time for family and most women were not in work at all. 

Today, the perception of Generation Y workers is quite the opposite. Many consider “millennials” to be lazy and quick to push the ejector button on jobs. But this perception is inaccurate. The emerging generation of employees wants something different than its parents’ – they prize freedom highly. Sometimes, they want to bust 15-hour days; sometimes, they want to spend more time with their nephew. To explain this phenomenon, many suggest millennials look at their forebears, following the economic crash, and see little reward for their years of toil. But few people observe the real enablers of the trend. Staff are not just working against the world – they are working smartly within the demands placed on them by a more flexible society.

In an era when most consumer goods are easily acquired on an on-demand or rental basis, the need to earn money to invest in big purchases evaporates. Take the major considerations of your parents’ generation… Buying and owning a home has been considered the ultimate indicator of success. Nowadays, not only is home ownership a financial impossibility, new variants of home occupancy are opening up.

Likewise, whilst a car is often considered the second-largest purchase you will ever make, a liberalisation in the way people possess a vehicle is making ownership less important. When you decouple yourself from life’s major financial commitments, you are freed up with a lessened burden to work to earn the money you need to foot the bill. This is one reason workers are content to travel while they can, freelance a bit and take control. 

There are ways in which the workplace is beginning to evolve in lockstep. The lifecycle of companies’ products is shorter than ever. What used to take a decade to develop, build and sell is now completed in two years, meaning company priorities, teams and skills requirements are constantly in flux. Staff churn is often considered a bad thing but, managed in the right way, fresh ideas brought in by fast-changing staff can richly add to what a company can do. That can be a welcome thing for modern employees. But too many employers are still trying to hire for 1950s-style permanence.

Digital services have made everything effortless, so chances are your customers expect the same flexibility your staff do. Engineering your workforce to enable this is no mean feat. For instance, Amazon has reconfigured itself to offer same-day delivery in many cities. That is not an insignificant task, but is absolutely essential to meet modern consumer demands. Whatever the business model, it is important to map the two together. 

I am not saying that completely flexible working is going to be the norm any time soon, or that the full-time job will be consigned to history. But by asking staff what they are prioritising in life, you can learn how they best want to work. Every employee has the right to request flexible working in order to achieve the balance they seek. But tacking flexibility on as an afterthought – often as one permanent, part-time arrangement – liberates few people in a changing world.

Read more about flexible working:

Implementing a strategy in which balance for all is baked into corporate goals ensures that everyone benefits. We are starting to see some promising signs – for instance, rival hotel chains in local markets employing part-time cleaning staff from a common agency. This is a great way to ensure part-timers have enough regular work to make the arrangement viable. And employers everywhere should follow suit. The modern worker is in a quest for a healthy and frequently shifting work-life balance. That doesn’t have to go against your own goals – it can be the very thing to take them to the next level.

Sacha Bielawski is chief business development officer at Coople.

Elsewhere, James Campanini, VP and GM EMEA at BlueJeans, explains how to keep employees on track with flexible working.