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Flexible hours can make life rigid

Danielle van Dalen – 

“All we really want is a little control – and to make that 6 O’clock Yoga class once in a while.”

This was the conclusion in a recent New Zealand Herald article about the benefits of flexible work.

But the increased interest we are seeing in a more flexible modern day workplace misses the bigger picture.

The autonomy that flexible work gives those of us in middle and higher income households is great, but the potential flexible work holds as a tool to break down barriers to employment for people facing multiple challenges in life is even greater.

Revolutionary concept

Smartphones and laptops have revolutionised our understanding of what work looks like beyond the traditional nine-to-five day.

Work has become something that we can take with us wherever we go.

Flexibility, understood in this sense, allows us to work where we want when we want. At the same time, if managed correctly, it also improves efficiency, health, commitment, life-work balance, and employee retention rates for those fortunate enough to work in roles where it is possible.

Increasing autonomy for those who already have a wide range of life choices and opportunities is one thing, but increasing it for those with more limited horizons could really shake things up.

Differing needs

New Zealand is made up of a population with different backgrounds and needs, including people with disabilities, struggling families, and older New Zealanders, and the potential impact of flexible work for these groups of society could be profound.

We need to first broaden and deepen our understanding of flexible work and its wider benefits.

It is for the person confined to a wheelchair who, when faced with accessibility and transport issues, can work from home.

It is for the single mum trying to both keep her family afloat and be there for her children, who needs flexible start and finish times so that she can work extra hours when she needs to cover the food bill, or a few less when the children need to be picked up from school.

It is for older New Zealanders too.

Studies have shown that later-life workers have higher levels of well-being than their retired peers, which in turn brings better health and productivity.

Potential benefits

With a rapidly aging population and the related issues associated with it, the potential benefits of maintaining sustainable employment for older New Zealanders are immense.

Yet, upon reaching retirement age many people want to slow down, spend time with their families, and nine-to-five doesn’t necessarily allow for this.

Flexible working options, however, such as job-sharing or four-day weeks may provide the solution.

So, let us remember that flexible work is not just about getting to yoga class on time, it is also a powerful tool for a more inclusive New Zealand.

As our perception of flexible work shifts from enabling a fun afternoon off to the potential for life-changing accessibility to meaningful work, perhaps our collective will to stretch its reach for the benefit of those who really need it might grow as well.

Danielle van Dalen is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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