Back in 2012 I wrote about a study looking at the working habits of those of us fortunate enough to work flexibly. At the time there was still a degree of stigma attached to working remotely as there remained a sense that if you weren’t visible then you were quite probably loafing off.
Alas, of course, the study found that the exact opposite was the case, and people working remotely tended to put many more hours in than their office based peers. The reasons for this were numerous, including more time ‘reclaimed’ from the commute all the way to difficulties delineating between work and personal time.
Four years on
Given the groundswell of technological tools to support flexible working and the rise of co-working spaces, one would imagine that we’re slightly more accepting of flexible working today than we were four years ago, so has the situation changed?
Well, it would appear not. A recent study looked at work habits in Germany to try and discern any differences between those who work flexibly and those that do not. It discovered that those with more control over their work time tend to do many more hours than those with fixed hours.
What’s more, our hours tended to increase broadly in line with the amount of flexibility we have over them. The authors have undertaken a similar analysis in the UK with similar results.
Why are we working harder?
So why does this occur? The authors suggest one reason might be the gift exchange theory, which posits that when we are given something, we tend to try and reciprocate where possible. So when we’re given the gift of autonomy by our employer, we show that the gift is warranted by working extra hard.
Another possible reason might be the gradual shift away from seeing work as a time based activity towards one that is task based. When our incomes become determined by our output, it’s likely to result in us attempting to produce as much as we can.
It’s a strange paradox, in the sense that autonomy is something that is well known to motivate us, but it also seems to lead us to put in ever longer shifts, perhaps in large part because the autonomy makes work that much more enjoyable.
So, whilst we generally strive towards more flexibility in our work life in order to achieve that work/life balance, there is much to suggest that we still aren’t quite there yet, although to be fair, neither of the studies mentioned here attempted to correlate hours worked when doing so flexibly with perceptions of work/life balance.
For instance, if we devote 50% of the time we normally spend commuting to work, we are doing more work than we do in the office, yet also spending more time on our social lives.
It suggests that more work is required to really understand the impact flexible working has, both on our office and personal lives.