The fragility of flexible work

This week we have see the tumultuous events taking place over on Twitter following the Musk takeover. One of his first actions was to end remote work, telling employees that they were now expected to be in the office full time if they were physical able to do so, and those that did not turn up in person would be deemed to have resigned. He also stated that only he would approve requests for homeworking.

Many Twitter employees have worked remotely for years. During the pandemic they responded to the emerging desire for increased remote work by telling employees that they could work from home ‘forever‘.

Musk has long been a critic of remote work. He’s been quoted as saying those that work from home are just pretending to work – a common flex falsehood. I’ve tweeted my thoughts about why men (and it is almost always men) like Musk rage against remote; it is usually about control, power, and bias. His actions however serve to highlight an important point: the fragility of flexible work.

Those who have access to flexible work may often do so at the discretion of a particular manager or leader. Prior to the pandemic flexible working adoption was progressing at a snail’s pace. In the UK, requests for flexibility were typically made through the statutory process. An agreed flexible working arrangement therefore became a contractual right. Now, with the advent of hybrid working, many arrangements are informal or part of experiments or pilots. When arrangements are informal or situated within a policy framework, they can be changed or removed at will – or on the whim of a manager.

It may look like in the last couple of years we have made progress around the flexible work agenda. In some respects we have – more people are working remotely and this is expected to continue. We are also seeing increasing conversations about time flexibility too. But, as the recent Twitter example tells us, flexible work is fragile. There is certainly the potential of a ‘great reversal’ – what has been done can be undone, and continued flexibility is not certain.

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