Formal vs informal flexible working

flexible workFlexible working remains something of a divisive issue in the workplace.  Despite numerous studies showing the benefits of it, both in terms of performance and engagement levels, the perception of it remains that it’s a fringe activity that is largely the preserve of working mothers.

Whilst a recent study from Cass Business School and Cranfield School of Management doesn’t touch specifically on these issues, it does shed some light on when flexible working is most effective at boosting job satisfaction and commitment to ones employer.

Flexible flexibility

The study found that flexible working had the biggest impact when it was arranged informally between the employee and their line manager rather than via more formal flexible working arrangements.

The researchers were especially keen to explore the relationship between flexible working, including remote working, flexitime and so on, and the performance of those who take advantage of it.  In addition, they examined the indirect influencers of performance, such as employee engagement and commitment to ones employer.

Finally, they considered whether the flexible working arrangement was arranged as part of a formal policy of the organization, or via an informal negotiation between the employee and their manager.  Interestingly, it was this that appeared to have the biggest impact upon both engagement and performance levels.

“Giving employees the opportunity to work more flexibly gives them more autonomy over their working lives and this gives them a sense of job satisfaction and loyalty to their employer,” the authors say.


The authors suggest that the informal flexible working arrangements were so effective because they triggered a sense of reciprocity, whereby employees felt they should return the favor in terms of increased loyalty and punctuality.

“Our research found that employees working under informal agreements received higher performance ratings. Informal arrangements can allow employees to better accommodate personal circumstances than when the arrangement is set up through a formal mechanism, and the informal negotiation with line managers can result in outcomes that are also beneficial to the team,” they say.

By contrast, flexible working that was arranged as part of more formal policies and arrangements seemed to have a negative impact on performance levels.

“It is possible that those with formal agreements perform poorly because they have less face time with their managers and co-workers. They might have fewer opportunities for training or collaborating with colleagues. If their performance is dependent on interacting with co-workers then this might be hampered by some forms of flexible working,” the researchers say.

What’s more, the authors also suggest that official policies may not be supported by managers, who may, consciously or otherwise, be influenced by this when assessing the performance of employees who take advantage of flexible working opportunities.

This could be especially so if these un-supportive managers have not been given training in how to manage flexible workers.

With flexible working slowly growing in acceptance, the study is an interesting addition to the debate around the issue, and how to effectively deploy it in the workplace.


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