Companies are embracing flexible working – but there’s evidence it can be more stressful than the office, writes Matt Chittock

Reading this feature from a work laptop on your kitchen table between filing reports? Then you’re part of one of the biggest changes to UK corporate culture in the last decade. Once used as a coded excuse for taking Friday afternoon off and getting an early start on the weekend, working from home is now accepted and encouraged by companies from Lloyds TSB to BT as part of a wider drive towards flexible working.

The idea is that by working outside of the office employees can enjoy a better work-life balance (while employers can quietly cut back on expensive city desk space). But it’s a relatively recent trend, and some experts are worried that this newly flexible work model might not be as good for employees as it first seems.

Dr Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire explains that the right to request flexible working began in 2014, when the effects of the recession were still fresh in people’s minds.

“What we've found is that a lot of organisations pulled back from investing in work-life balance initiatives, particularly ones that cost them money,” she says. “So the right to request flexible working has almost taken the place of these initiatives for many people. Although there hasn't been much time for evaluation, all the big studies show that evidence for the benefits of flexible working, for organisations as well as employees, is very mixed. Under certain conditions, flexible working can even be bad for your health.”

Kinman maintains that when you jettison the traditional office set up you may also abandon a whole raft of social norms that used to govern how and when people worked. While overwork in offices is very visible (as you can see which employees are grinding away at their desks after 6pm), at home there’s nothing to stop people starting earlier and finishing later.

“There’s evidence that employees use their flexibility to actually work longer and harder,” she says. “People might say: ‘Well, I don't have to clock in at nine and finish at five, I can sit here and I can really show that I'm deserving of this honour of being allowed to work flexibly'.

“If you're very involved in what you do it's very tempting to work all the time, to be always 'on'. Technology is sold as this great enabler, but people are only very recently starting to realise that there are massive downsides. Organisations, and individuals for that matter, tend to be reliant on self-regulation.”

If employees aren’t great at self-regulation, the temptation to overwork can equal excess stress. And because devices like smartphones mean work is always within arm’s reach, it can start invading other parts of employee’s lives.

Plus, Kinman says that there are other factors which can negatively affect employee’s wellbeing, such as loneliness. While having a break from colleagues can be brilliant for concentrating on a report, she says that over time people working remotely can start to feel like they’re socially isolated.

So what can managers do to mitigate these problems? First, it’s important to define exactly what working flexibility means to your organisation. 

“Employees need preparation to work flexibly. It's not just a question of 'you've got a computer, you've got a laptop off you go...' People need advice and training on what to do,” says Kinman. “It's about defining the rules and the boundaries and getting them out in the open. But in some companies these things aren’t talked about.”

Kinman adds this means giving employees choice and control about how and when they work, while establishing what is and isn’t acceptable. For instance, managers could advise not sending emails after 7pm, or make sure that a long hours culture is seen as a problem rather than a solution.

Some companies have attempted bold moves such as Atos shutting down its servers between Christmas and New Year, or Volkswagen putting its server out of commission come 4pm.

However, as a manager, the most powerful message is going to come from you. “In some places there’s a culture of oneupmanship, that “I send out emails on Saturday morning” attitude,” says Kinman. “Now it's all very well to say that it's up to the recipient to manage that, it's their fault because they shouldn't be reading their emails at 11am on a Saturday morning. But if you're senior and you're doing something like that your staff are going to think that this is the way to get on in the organisation. In reality, what you really need to do is help employees develop sustainable ways of dealing with technology. “

Best practice for working flexibly with Emily Taylor from Green Grass Coaching

1. Be clear what’s expected. Talk to your line manager so you can agree the parameters of working from home and identify when you need to be contactable.
2. Get in the work mind set.Get dressed, or do whatever you need to do so you know that today is a ‘work’ day. Tell anyone else in your house so they don’t walk in and interrupt you.
3. Have a break. Don’t be afraid of getting out and about at lunch time, it’s exactly what you’d do in the office. 
4. Be social. Make time to phone or Skype colleagues so you stay in the loop and don’t feel isolated.