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Monday, January 20, 2020

Changes in Work Behaviour Patterns

By Sara Jansen Perry, Emily M. David, and Lars U. Johnson

Work has become increasingly flexible over the last several decades, and flexibility is a top concern of many employees choosing between organisations. Moreover, with each new generation that enters the workforce, more forms of flexibility, such as location, schedule, and work design flexibility, are being demanded. So how should organisations best approach this new workforce and its demands for more flexibility? One newer setting, or work arrangement, that accommodates various forms of flexible work and may strike a much-needed balance, minimising the challenges and maximising the benefits of flexible work arrangements, is co-working.

Location Flexibility

Location flexibility – often associated with remote work – has been increasingly popular with the introduction of enabling technologies for doing all types of work from anywhere. Employees want location flexibility for a variety of reasons, including to avoid long commutes, improve work-non-work balance, and reduce the need to spend time and money physically preparing for the office environment (e.g., dressing up formally). Others have a desire for more variety in work environments, or wish to avoid contact with difficult people or situations.

Remote work has many benefits for organisations, including improved productivity, retention, and commitment and could represent significant cost savings in terms of energy and space for individuals, organisations, and their communities. Organisations can also benefit when they can find remote workers closer to their customers (reducing need for business travel), by improving the size and quality of the applicant pool, and reducing physical barriers that might otherwise prevent certain types of employees from working.

Of course, working just anywhere carries important challenges that must be addressed. Social isolation is a chief concern, which can lead to decreased performance and retention amongst those who do not get enough face-to-face interaction or at least have access to rich forms of communication technology. Self-efficacy and self-regulation are also required to help employees implement structure in a remote work arrangement and to commit to both the flexible work arrangement and to their dispersed co-workers.

Despite these challenges, research suggests that overall, remote work, and more broadly, location flexibility, is beneficial for all when properly managed. More than ever, it behoves organisations and scholars to find the appropriate implementation of this form of flexibility, as future generations will likely value it even more, and technology will continue to enhance the ability of more types of workers to work from anywhere, at any time.

Schedule Flexibility

Scheduling flexibility (i.e., flex-time) is an area providing a form of flexibility to those jobs that do not allow for location flexibility. Traditionally, employees adhered mostly to organisationally set shifts, working only during their assigned shift. However, organisations have increasingly allowed employees to redefine their working hours.

Working from home or in other remote locations may be distracting or unfeasible for some employees with significant home responsibilities. But scheduling flexibility still allows employees to manage their personal lives so that stressors from the non-work domain do not derail them from committing to and engaging in their work. Consistent with this, the benefits of flex-time include increased well-being, productivity, and satisfaction, and decreased absenteeism and work-family conflict.

Just as with flexible work location, however, there may be a threshold after which the benefits of schedule flexibility diminish (more flexibility means less predictability and accountability), and those in certain jobs may not benefit as much (i.e., managers who need to be available during traditional hours, or amongst professionals who have significant autonomy in other forms).

Work Design Flexibility

Finally, work design is “the study, creation, and modification of the composition, content, structure, and environment within which jobs and roles are enacted” (Morgeson & Humphrey, 2008). Work design flexibility is increasingly an important consideration, as “workers are also proactive ‘crafters’ of their work roles, often dynamically redesigning their own work to suit their particular capabilities, interests, or situations” (Morgeson & Humphrey, 2008).

Increased flexibility in the forms of contracting, part-time work, and job crafting has also empowered people who want to take an entrepreneurial approach to their career while still working with established organisations. Perhaps as a result of these increasingly entrepreneurial and flexible mind-sets, the “gig economy” has emerged, as well as an increase in the number of “digital nomads” and the rise of self-employed freelancers in the workforce. A significant benefit of these new forms of work is the removal of geographic boundaries, which potentially eliminates location conflicts between organisations and the top talent they wish to recruit (e.g., dual-career couples, or those otherwise unable to commute or relocate).

Of course, drawbacks may also exist, including fewer opportunities for establishing strong personal connections or for identifying with a group of co-workers or a set organisation, particularly when communication occurs through digital means. If employees are too detached from their employer, they may be less likely to form long-term relationships or contribute to the organisation in broader ways (e.g., citizenship).

Emergence of Co-working Spaces as a New Workplace

Even as all of these forms of flexibility are infused throughout modern, global work patterns, people still crave and indeed, require, connection with other humans, as well as the ability to discuss ideas, share knowledge, access office technology, compare their own competence with others’, and continuously hone their chosen craft. One potential solution to addressing these many divergent needs is co-working. Co-working spaces are defined as dedicated, membership-based spaces where independent workers (or multiple employees from the same business) can work autonomously, yet in the presence of others. Beyond just providing space, however, these communities also bring diverse individuals together under one roof to share resources, ideas, and network contacts.

Challenges also exist, however, such as the potential for conflict or stealing of ideas, or difficulty in forming relationships with highly dissimilar others. In addition, co-working spaces incorporate many of the principles from open-office layouts now being used in corporations. Given the challenges of open-plan workspaces with distractions, lack of privacy, and heightened noise, certain individuals (e.g., introverted workers or those low in social skill) may be poorly suited for co-working space membership.

Finally, there are also potential macro implications of co-working spaces. Namely, what is the potential impact on the broader community and on socioeconomic inequality and/or inclusion in the workforce? Could co-working models offer flexibility to more employees that might not otherwise have it? Can exposure to diverse co-working members expose individuals to new areas of business and new ways of thinking? And, how might certain groups of highly skilled service workers (e.g., physicians) respond to being excluded from the movement towards flexibility? Might these trends affect career choices amongst young people? Such research is critical to making informed recommendations on how to improve upon and maximally leverage flexible work patterns for the benefit of all.

This full version of this paper originally appeared in The Cambridge Handbook of the Changing Nature of Work (pp. 274-294). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Sara Jansen Perry is an Assistant Professor of Management at Baylor University, Emily M. David is an Assistant Professor of Management at CEIBS, and Lars U. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wayne State University.