«Flexwork requires trust»

«Flexwork requires trust»

Flexible work models are a mega trend in the world of work. In the struggle for the best employees, the possibility of being able to choose one's workplace and working time is playing an increasingly important role. Sandra Zurbuchen and Fabian Leuthold from the UND association in Zurich are experts on flexwork.

Is flexwork a luxury that only large companies can afford? 

Fabian Leuthold: It is a fact that large companies often have more technical options enabling their employees to work more flexibly, from home or when out and about. Of course, flexwork is also possible for SME as well, and most of them have already implemented this in one form or another. The focus is on varied and flexible working time models, from part-time work, through flexitime and annual work accounts, right up to flexible models in various phases of life.

Sandra Zurbuchen: SME often create flexwork solutions in everyday working life in order to retain good staff. These are usually special solutions which are individually agreed. Other SME are introducing flexwork with the deliberate intention of attracting good staff. I have found that SME are very creative when it comes to flexwork. In the service sector in particular, companies often prove to be very accommodating regarding the needs of their employees. But the manufacturing industry also offers far more possibilities than you would think. I know a company in Valais, for instance, that offers a shorter daily shift with an extended lunch break. This is exactly in line with school hours. So employees have the opportunity to cook lunch for their children and to supervise their homework after school. 

Modern flexwork: shift model based on school hours.

Where are the opportunities and risks of flexwork for SME?

Fabian Leuthold: Applied properly, flexwork offers benefits for both sides. Employees can benefit greatly because they can better harmonize the demands of work with other areas of life – from looking after children, through their own hobbies, right up to caring for aging parents. With flexwork you can achieve a balance in your own way of life. This results in greater satisfaction and can prevent a buildup of stress. But employers also benefit because, for example, flexwork employees are often more than willing to stand in for sick colleagues. Moreover, flexwork can help reduce fluctuation and also makes it easier to attract specialist staff.

Sandra Zurbuchen: In order for flexwork to work, however, we need a different leadership culture with a great deal of reciprocal trust. This is because flexwork staff cannot be controlled as easily as employees who are at the same workplace from dawn to dusk, five days a week. As a manager, I therefore have to entrust the staff with a great deal of responsibility and be able to talk to them on an equal footing – I am increasingly turning into a coach. At the same time, flexwork demands a great deal of personal responsibility and self-organization from employees. This also means regularly informing one's supervisors about any pending items. Both sides are responsible for preventing flexwork employees from suffering burnout. Then flexwork would no longer be a win-win situation and both sides would ultimately lose. Such a situation could arise, for example, if someone were to be required to do a full-time job in 60 percent of the time. That can't work. 

What differences do you see between micro and medium-sized companies?

Sandra Zurbuchen: Individuals are even more important in the case of micro-companies. Employee absences and fluctuating orders have major consequences. It is here, in particular, that flexwork can present an opportunity to gain more leeway. 

In which sectors is flexwork particularly widespread?

Sandra Zurbuchen: Companies from the services sector are the clear leaders in this respect as they can be more flexible than manufacturing companies as far as the place of work is concerned, and they usually employ a higher proportion of women who more frequently tend to be found in part-time jobs. But we also know of classical industrial enterprises and engineering firms with very flexible models. 

How important is flexwork today for recruiting?

Fabian Leuthold: Employers who offer flexwork find it easier to recruit qualified staff – and to keep them permanently. However, I find it an exaggeration to believe that the younger generation is no longer willing accept any kind of work apart from flexwork. There are still many young people who want to work full-time or are willing to do overtime if it is beneficial to their career. But, in comparison with earlier generations, they also expect more flexibility from their employers. 

Job sharing is a special form of flexwork. Is this also an option for SME?

Sandra Zurbuchen: Surprisingly enough, many SME operate a special form of job sharing without being aware of it. In many family businesses, couples, parents and children or siblings share the senior position. One person acts as CEO, for instance, and another chairs the board of directors. Or one person is particularly responsible for production and the other for marketing and HR. That’s because senior positions in SME can quite easily require a 150 or 200 percent input. So it's a good idea to divide this workload through what is known as «top sharing», i.e. job sharing for members of management. But, for me, job sharing on other levels of the hierarchy is also a success model. If offers double know-how, ensures reliability and, in the ideal case, also ensures that the job-sharing partners complement and inspire each other. However, a certain amount of time must be planned for coordination. A full-time job should not be replaced by two 50-percent jobs, but rather by two 60-percent jobs. 

Is flexwork also possible in senior positions?

Fabian Leuthold: Many companies still have a presence culture. Those who want a career in such companies have to be present and contactable throughout the entire week. Under such conditions, flexwork models in management are difficult, especially part-time models. This also has a lot to do with gender roles. Men, in particular, often fear loss of status because their identity is heavily associated with having a classic full-time career. The home office is not seen as being unmanly, but the reduced workload could be seen in this way. In this case, a flexwork arrangement is not obstructed by objective considerations, but by social perceptions.

The home office is not seen as being unmanly, but the reduced workload could be seen in this way.

What do you recommend to SME that would like to make greater use of flexwork, but who are wary of actually tackling the subject? 

Sandra Zurbuchen: Many entrepreneurs fear that part-time work could cause delays because it takes longer to deal with orders. There are also worries that personnel administration could be more time-consuming. For companies with concerns of this kind we recommend introducing a pilot phase on a small scale. This gives them scope to evaluate the pilot phase and find out whether it works for them. Furthermore, it is always helpful to network with like-minded people and to benefit from their experience.

The interview was conducted by Katrin Schnettler Ruetz, Zurich Insurance Company Ltd.

 

The UND association in Zurich sees itself as a leading center of competence in Switzerland, dedicated to reconciling family life and gainful employment. It advises businesses, institutions and private individuals.

Fabian Leuthold

Social Anthropologist Fabian Leuthold is responsible for strategic product and process development at Fachstelle UND. He is currently working on developing the services offered by the organization.

Sandra Zurbuchen

Organizational adviser and HR specialist Sandra Zurbuchen is a member of the management team at Fachstelle UND. She advises organizations and their employees and carries out workshops and coaching sessions.