Flexible vs Structured Working

blog flexiAs my work pattern enters another period of change I find myself comparing the pros and cons of flexible vs structured working. I have a good bit of experience at both extremes as well as with various hybrid versions that fall somewhere in between, and I continue to battle with which is better and, indeed, whether one even is better than the other.

For the sake of this post I’ll be comparing the two extremes – flexible working hours do not necessarily mean working from home, just as rigid working hours don’t necessarily mean being in an office; however my personal opinion is that, combined, they epitomise two polarised ways of working so I’ll be talking about them in this context.

I’ve always enjoyed (funnily enough…) the flexibility of flexible work patterns. I am disciplined enough to happily work from home without any issues, and in several of my jobs it’s been about delivering a project rather than being present at particular times or for a particular number of hours. These roles have not required me to be on site or available to provide a service but instead mean I’m in the office and working when I need to be, and am not when I’m not.

I often find working from home more efficient compared to being in the office, particularly when I have something specific to get written/designed/whatever. Though I enjoy interaction with colleagues, personal relationships can sometimes be distracting and it’s not difficult to get sidetracked by chit-chat or pulled into meetings without a certain amount of discipline. A flexible work pattern also means you can have the plumber round for a boiler service at most any time, or you can pop out during the day to run some errands without feeling guilty or have it impact your working hours, because some work can be completed regardless of whether it’s 2pm or 2am. That flexibility does take discipline but is really useful. I don’t have a family so working at 9pm doesn’t really impact my life in any major way but clearly it’s not for everyone.

And for every positive there is inevitably a negative. With flexible working I, without a shadow of a doubt, put in more hours than I would if I had a more rigid work pattern. You find yourself checking and replying to emails at all times, regardless of the hour or whether it’s the weekend (or even whether you’re on holiday in some instances). And lunch breaks? What are lunch breaks? On busy days I can go 12hrs straight with barely a bathroom break, and that isn’t healthy – not for your sanity and not for your body. Flexible work patterns can mean that no time is really sacred – what you gain in flexibility you lose in dedicated downtime. Working from home can also be isolating and it’s hard to build relationships or retain any kind of team spirit from a distance. I have also worked in roles where I’ve been able to take as much annual leave as I desire. But as great as that sounds I personally always found myself taking less than I might have otherwise. That said, one challenge to this is that you need less when you don’t have to take time off to hang around for tradesmen and so on, but I don’t think that that’s the whole reason. So that’s some of the pay-offs, but the higher price worth it for the myriad benefits gained elsewhere?

So what about structured work patterns? Well, even with a healthy dose of overtime thrown in, on the whole you have a much clearer demarcation of what is work time and what is personal time, and that’s a powerful tool for switching off. The social aspect can enhance the quality of your work as well – the information, feedback or quick questions discussed with colleagues are invaluable, as is knowing when and where you can find someone to physically pop by and resolve a problem or make a decision in person. Conversations are inevitably much more straightforward than the often sensitive wording an email requires when you don’t have the body language and facial expressions to back it up. For some people, structured work patterns are the only option and this absolutely makes sense if you’re in, for example, a customer service role. Regardless of where you are based, in order to ensure sufficient service, staff need to be present. I’m on the fence about whether structured working increases your chances of a lunch break – in my experience they still get missed fairly regularly, however at least you have more of an option to take one and are more inclined to factor a little free time into your diary.

Structured working is a nightmare for all those bits and bobs though. The guilt people often feel about having to take a couple of hours off to go to the doctors/dentist can lead to the excessive making up of hours, and annual leave is frittered all so you can sit at home for half a day waiting for that pesky electrician to arrive. Unless you have a long lunch break or are based particularly close to some decent shopping, popping out to pick up some emergency supplies has to wait until after work as well. And forget having anything delivered to your home by courier – you either need a Saturday delivery or a kindly neighbour. Preferably one who never leaves the house…

Does the cost of either option outweigh the benefits? Well that’s a very personal question. Everyone’s circumstances are different and what’s right for one isn’t necessarily right for another. Although it’s becoming increasingly popular I do think it’s a shame more companies don’t embrace a more flexible culture where employees can choose what is right for them. But I’ve seen it not work and I understand the concerns and the risks.

And what’s the right option for me? Actually, writing this blog has helped me realise that my preference is a hybrid. I think neither extreme is ideal but a combination of the two can give you the best of both worlds and provides a healthy dose of variety. I find flexible working sometimes puts my personal life on hold altogether and working from home all the time is very isolating. Equally I often feel quite constrained being stuck in an office all day and the distractions really get to me sometimes to the point where I just want to be by myself. But to be honest I’m pretty flexible and will suck it up whatever’s thrown at me. My work pattern seems to change constantly anyway so there’s never an opportunity to get bored 🙂

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Over ten years’ recruitment, employability, HR and sales experience in both the private and public sectors. I've worked in construction recruitment, FMCG headhunting, and in higher education on the employability agenda.

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