A new local study into flexible work arrangements and their impact on employees’ attitudes to work has confirmed that such practices have a positive effect on employee satisfaction and engagement – but only if their implementation is managed carefully.

It also found that there is little difference in the importance attached to such arrangements by millennials and non-millennials, with the author positing that alternative employment conditions introduced by companies to attract younger workers are used just as much – and equally appreciated – by older ones.

The study, conducted by Eugenia Sammut as part of a Master’s in Management by Research within the Faculty of Economics, Management and Accounting at the University of Malta, analysed the responses of 556 participants, of which almost half (46 per cent) were millennials. This was followed by a series of three focus groups to delve more deeply into the views expressed in the questionnaire.

The results show that flexibility in the place and in the time of work has a significant impact on job satisfaction and employee engagement, whereas flexibility in time also impacts employee wellbeing.

On the other hand, flexibility in the amount and continuity (such as reduced hours and leave, respectively) was not correlated to better attitudes to work, possibly because such arrangements are nowadays seen as standard, basic requirements.

Millennials vs everyone else

The only difference registered between millennials and non-millennials was in the former’s intention to leave a job unless it could provide time flexibility. However, this had no bearing on their satisfaction or engagement, shedding light on the importance of arrangements that allow employees to work outside the regular 9-5 bracket, the lack of which might entice workers to explore other job opportunities.

Interestingly, millennials tended to score lower (albeit not significantly) than non-millennials on job satisfaction, employee engagement, and employee well-being, and higher scores on intention to leave, depicting a generation exhibiting fewer positive attitudes at work than non-millennials.

Resources

For employers and managers, the study highlights the need for adequate resourcing for flexibility to be implemented effectively.

“Even a resource as standard as vacation leave becomes counterproductive as users return to work with a backlog awaiting them,” Ms Sammut writes. “A right to disconnect is not going to get the job done while employees are away – but a handover is. For example, if the company demands that there is someone at the office at certain hours or days in the week, there must be at least two people available for this demand, as this will allow the employees to fit certain flexible work arrangements (FWAs) around each other.”

She notes: “Such a scenario is not extreme – take the example of a receptionist, whose nature of the job is to be present at the workplace. How can this employee make use of standard measures such as vacation and sick leave? There must already be a replacement available as these measures are by law. So why shouldn’t FWAs that are available in such workplaces extend to measures like compressed workweeks, reduced hours, and flexitime?”

Trsut and respect

The main concern raised by employers and managers involved in the study is the potential for employees to abuse of such arrangements. Key to mitigating this concern, Ms Sammut writes, is the fostering of an environment of respect through constant support, monitoring and feedback, which both prevent the employee from feeling lost and isolated and the employer from worry about abuse.

“Too much autonomy may lead to negative employee attitudes as employees are left without guidance and with the added responsibility of managing their work. Therefore […] managers must ensure that they are providing support and guidance to the employees. Apart from strengthening the bond, this is also a way for managers to check whether the job is still being done well despite the flexibility provided.

“In this way, managers will strengthen their trust in the employees when seeing that their performance is kept high despite not working within the traditional parameters of work. They are also able to identify any problems in performance early and be able to guide the employees as needed to keep the performance high. Feedback is also crucial for new employees joining the company, when the bond of trust and respect is still at its very early stages, as through feedback the employer and/or manager can identify what kind of measures work best for the individual, what level of support they require, and ultimately whether they fit within the flexible culture or not.”

Blanket benefit

The study also makes the case that employers who only extend such flexibility to those with care responsibilities may be making the mistake of undervaluing the personal time of those without such responsibilities, thinking that staying later at work, for example, would not interfere with anything important since they do not care for a family.

Ms Sammut however argues that non-work activities must be defined as activities that go beyond family responsibilities, and need to include activities such as sport, socialising, and learning.

Importantly, she also finds that for those employees who have experienced flexible work arrangements in place and time, these measures have already become part of the expected work conditions, with employers rolling back such measures at their own risk.

“Measures that allow workers flexibility in the time and place of work are undergoing a transition. While previously seen as ‘nice-to-haves’, or perks, their rapid introduction has seen them become ‘must-haves’ or entitlements, although they have not become standard – yet.”

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