Leiden Psychology Blog

Flexible working

Flexible working By stocksnap.io

New ways of working are characterized by flexible employment, rotating projects, and virtual teams. A flexible workforce may help companies adapt to change. However, employee insecurity prevents employees from performing to the best of their abilities.

Now the economy seems to be picking up, temping agencies are the first to know. Extra work is converted into flexible positions: you only call people up when they are needed, and can easily get rid of them when this is no longer the case. Permanent contracts have become a rarity. Organizations do their best to avoid long-term commitments. Temporary contract follows temporary contract, sometimes entailing dubious constructions to get around legal guidelines. At the same time, this stirs up a competitive spirit between employees: only the very best will be considered for a permanent contract. Perhaps this may seem a good way to motivate people to work as hard as they possibly can, but is it actually a clever move?

Lack of commitment

The relationship between employer and employee is a reciprocal one. If employers make it quite clear they are not prepared to commit themselves in any way, employees are also likely to take a calculating approach. Why not take that extra course at the boss’s expense and then go and work for the rival company? People may perhaps work harder if they are uncertain about their future in the company, but efforts to improve their own career prospects do not necessarily help achieve team or company goals. Employees need to be secure about their own position and have the feeling they really belong before they adopt the company’s goals as their own, or are willing to invest in activities that benefit the company as a whole.

Flexible workers also need security

The same phenomenon can be observed in flexible work teams and project groups whose composition is constantly in flux. As companies try to anticipate changes in the market and meet new requirements, they move people from one department to the next. In theory, this might have all sorts of positive effects. Newcomers in teams are better able to scrutinize existing practices; they contribute unique knowledge and novel skills, and may trigger innovation in this way. But in practice, these positive effects often fail to materialize. Why is this?

Firstly, most people resent having a ‘blow-in’ tell them that they have been doing everything the wrong way. Until the newcomer is familiar with all the ins and outs and has proved himself or herself a constructive and dependable colleague, there seems little reason to take much notice of such criticisms.

Secondly, these ever ongoing personnel changes make people feel insecure about their own positions. Will I be the next to be placed at a new department? What we see in our research* is that people’s prime concern in such situations is to prove to themselves and others the value of their own contributions. This makes them less open to suggestions put forth by ‘newcomers’ , even if these are highly valid and might improve the team’s performance. Thus, flexible working arrangements do not always benefit the company. People need first and foremost to feel secure in their own position and to know their contribution is valued. Only then can they be open to criticism and new ideas, so that a flexible workforce becomes an asset, instead of a liability.

* Rink, F., & Ellemers, N. (2015). The pernicious effects of unstable work group membership: How workgroup changes undermine unique task contributions and newcomer acceptance. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 18, 6-23.

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