Is flexible working really a good thing?

Businesses are adapting to manage remote workers and freelancers, whose flexible working may be convenient, but means they are “always on” and available anytime, anywhere

The UK could be turning into a nation of remote workers and freelancers, giving up the soul-destroying daily commute for a day spent in the home office or local café. According to a report by the Design Council, there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of freelancers in the UK between 2005 and 2010.

The benefits of throwing off the shackles of the office have been well documented: you can save money on travel, not to mention time; choose your own hours; and manage childcare more easily. Even Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson has waded in to the debate: “I’m a big advocate of letting your team work from wherever suits them best – whether that’s at home, in the office, or on the top of a mountain,” he says.

But there are signs that there could be downsides to this mode of working. Being available outside the traditional nine-to-five workday also means there’s no clear downtime.

Is the trade-off really working?

Fans of the always-on culture extol the virtues of a flexible workday, claiming this empowers workers and results in increased productivity. They are not wrong. According to recent research, 91 per cent of remote workers believe they get more work done when working remotely and those working flexibly are almost twice as likely to work beyond 40 hours a week.

“The nine to five, in my opinion, is nearly completely redundant,” says Peter Johnston, founder of Lystable, a website used by Google, CNBC and Expedia to manage their freelancers.

“We are moving towards a way of working where the number of us operating as freelancers and independent workers is overtaking those in full-time roles. This benefits both individuals and businesses – the former get to pick and choose when and who they work with, and the latter are able to build teams with relevant skills for specific projects and tasks.”

Fans of the always-on culture extol the virtues of a flexible workday, claiming this empowers workers and results in increased productivity

Many companies find that staff enjoy the autonomy of flexible working and respond well to being trusted to manage their own hours. “We’re fairly flexible on the hours we require from our staff,” says Tim Kitchen, founder of online marketing agency Exposure Ninja. “As long as they are broadly available during UK work hours, they are free to take breaks, visit friends or go to the gym throughout the day. All of this seems to make them happier and we feel it reduces the ‘Friday afternoon funk’ because if they’re not feeling up for it, they don’t have to work.”

Happiness at work graph

Virtual startups

It’s not just the employee who is breaking free of the office cubicle. More and more people are starting companies from their kitchen or spare room and are now able to grow successful virtual startups, employing teams who rarely meet in real life.

Shaa Wasmund, a serial entrepreneur who helped grow the Dyson brand from Sir James Dyson’s kitchen table and later built and sold business advice website Smarta.com, now runs Shaa.com, which helps people build online businesses.

“I recently transitioned from the old-school way of working,” she says. “I went from an office, with lots of employees, to a new way from my garden with a lean team and great outsourcing.

“In my mind there are absolutely no downsides and only upsides. We are far more profitable, have a much more balanced life and, although we probably start earlier and maybe even finish later sometimes, I have no commute and I get to take my son to school almost every day.

“Gone are the days when working from home means you had no ambition or were working for peanuts. Today, you can build multi-million-pound businesses from your garden and have a life too.”

Sanjana Karnani is a beauty entrepreneur, selling a range of products from her home in north-west London via the Amazon platform. She started her business, Verdure Plus, three years ago and now turns over £1 million a year. “I used to work nine to five for a charity,” she says. “But it made me unhappy leaving my daughter at nursery every day.

“Now I work just five hours each day, which means I spend a lot more time with her, and I am also able to take 40 days holiday each year to visit my family in India. This would never have been possible with a regular job.”

Home business is now big business in the UK; it is the nation’s most popular startup location. At last tally, there were 2.75 million people running a company from their home, which represents around half of all Britain’s small businesses. These home business owners are clearly on to something. When polled by entrepreneurs’ organisation Enterprise Nation earlier this year, 89 per cent said they were expecting to grow their venture over the next 12 months.

The downsides

No more office banter. No watercooler moments. Less collaboration. Fewer eureka moments. According to Andy Payne, a serial entrepreneur with several businesses in the gaming industry, these are just a few of the drawbacks to employing remote workers. “Being physically together in a physical environment can be really powerful in a creative business,” he says. “Human contact and the buzz of a busy office can get juices flowing. People can look at others’ screens and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”

Most people never turn off their smartphones and this can lead to more work-induced stress. Mr Kitchen warns: “The challenge when an increasing number of our clients are always on is that you have to make sure you are consistent with your communication times. Otherwise, they get the impression that you are available 24/7 at their beck and call, particularly at the weekends.”

Clever messaging applications, cloud-based software and videoconferencing, alongside the inexorable rise of the smartphone, have all helped to enable the always-on economy. But the available technologies are still far from perfect. “We do a lot of team calls on Skype,” says Mr Payne. “But unfortunately internet connectivity is still so useless that we can’t have ten faces on screen yet.” Yet, according to technology giant Cisco, by 2019 more than 80 per cent of web traffic will be video.

Are workers happier in the new always-on economy? Early indications suggest they are. A report by consultants McKinsey found 60 per cent of independent workers in the UK and wider Europe were highly satisfied with the flexibility that being a freelancer offered. The study canvassed the opinions of 8,000 people and found just 14 per cent would prefer a traditional nine-to-five job.