People’s working lives have been growing more flexible for many years, to the extent that the restriction of fixed hours and a fixed place of work is becoming a thing of the past. How and to what degree does this trend affect workers’ private lives and the much-vaunted “work-life balance?”
Analysis based on 680,000 individual opinions
The LAIF research project, funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation, is investigating the relevance of all conceivable effects of different permutations of flexible living and working. The analysis is based on an opinion survey carried out by the IG Metall trade union in 2017, to which some 680,000 employees responded. The scale of this survey allowed a wide range of opinions concerning flexible working to be gathered. In 360 of the participating companies, the set of questions was expanded to include other aspects of flexibilization, employees’ personal circumstances and work-life balance. The collected data thus constitutes a truly representative sample of opinions drawn from all areas of the manufacturing industry, which can serve as a meaningful basis for further analysis. Three such studies have been published by Fraunhofer IAO in collaboration with the Institute for Human Factors and Technology Management (IAT) at the University of Stuttgart.
Mobile workforce – the theory versus reality
The first study looked at the physical aspect of workforce mobility. On the whole, there seems to be a strong desire on the part of employees to able to decide for themselves where they carry out their work. Nine out of ten respondents to the survey expressed a positive opinion with regard to remote working. But potential remote workers also have doubts concerning the practical implications: for instance, the fear of exclusion or having to work excessive hours. One not-to-be-underestimated factor is the fear of having to compensate for time not spent in the office by working even harder at home. The analytical study based on the 2017 IG Metall survey indicates the importance of remote working opportunities in the context of recruitment and employer branding, but also hints at a downside that it would be unwise to ignore, especially when introducing this type of flexible working for the first time.
Flexible working hours don’t necessarily mean a better work-life balance
A second analytical study based on the results of the 2017 IG Metall survey looked at the temporal aspects of work flexibilization and the corresponding working time models. Differences between theory and practice are observable not only in the formal definition of these models but also, and more importantly, in the way they are implemented and the consequences for employees both professionally and in their private lives. The study therefore focuses on detail adjustments and the organizational framework within which working hours are regulated. The way different working time models are experienced in real life was evaluated primarily with reference to work-life balance ratings. The conclusion of this study was that flexible working hours don’t necessarily enable employees to gain greater control over the way they balance their professional and personal obligations.
The role of works councils in an age of increasing work flexibilization
Flexible working practices fundamentally change the working environment, and thus represent a major challenge to works councils. Our analyses reveal that many workforce representative bodies have difficulties adjusting to this new situation. Flexible working arrangements almost inevitably narrow down the communication channels through which they can address the workforce, forcing works councils to place more emphasis on cultivating their relationship with employers in order to fulfil their representative duties. The IG Metall trade union conducted a survey of its own officers in 2016 on precisely this question. The responses of more than 2000 members of works councils were published in the report of this survey.