Flexible working and wellbeing: the role of global mobility

With the decision made to leave the EU, Dr Sue Shortland explains the key points HR must consider to ensure that their company's policy supports flexible working and employee wellbeing.

Employee wellbeing
As the UK heads towards leaving the EU, so the drive to maintain organisational performance and raise the bar in terms of workforce productivity has never been more crucial. A key emphasis within HR in achieving these objectives concerns managing the contribution of flexible working and flexibility.Global mobility professionals need to play their part in this endeavour by ensuring that relocation policy and practice support both flexibility and wellbeing. 

What is flexible working?

Flexible working refers to the various ways in which work can be carried out. Job roles may be delivered by drawing upon flexible approaches to location, working time, and skills deployment. For example, international roles may potentially be delivered via relocation (using traditional and non-traditional assignment types) or via frequent business travel and/or virtual working.As such, flexible working is about an employee and an employer making changes to when, where and how a person will work, in order to meet individual and business needs.Flexible working also includes the notion of skills flexibility, whereby members of the workforce are adaptable and able to work in different roles and functions. Flexible working should be mutually beneficial and result in superior performance outcomes for both the organisation and the individual.Formal flexibility policies are officially approved. Devised by HR, they typically provide discretion to offer flexible hours of work and/or working patterns, subject to the needs of the business. 'Informal flexibility' refers to policies that are unofficial but are made available to some employees, perhaps on a discretionary basis.It is important to ensure fairness in the implementation of flexible working policy. Good communication is needed, too, to ensure that employees do not feel disadvantaged if organisational requirements preclude the offer of flexible working practices.   In relation to international mobility, for example, forms of flexible working, such as part-time work, may not be feasible given the costs involved in supporting individuals and their families via traditional assignment policy.Global mobility professionals have an important role to play in explaining the value of the relocation policy and why it may not support desired flexible working hours. They can also consider how policy can be applied to support flexible working, and advise on this if flexible working could be a practical possibility – for example, if a dual-career couple can be supported via flexible working in a co-working jobshare.

Personal flexibility

While flexible working is often viewed as an organisational concept, it is important to remember that flexibility is also associated with personal traits. These refer to individual characteristics that help to bring about strategic organisational objectives. Thus, for example, personal flexibility is associated with:
  • Ability to manage complexity and uncertainty
  • Adaptability
  • Tolerance of ambiguity
  • Openness
  • Empathy
  • Being non-judgmental
  • Having an interest in others
  • Being willing to acquire new behaviours and skills

Sustainable organisational performance

As we approach the UK’s departure from the EU, the emphasis will be not only upon boosting performance in the short-term but also upon ensuring that this will be sustainable post-Brexit. Once again, global mobility professionals have an important strategic contribution to make in relation to improving mobility outcomes. This will require a focus on:
  • Balanced short-term and long-term objectives
  • Agility to adapt to challenges and opportunities
  • Action to improve engagement via flexible working and fostering assignee flexibility
  • Treating relocated employees as a core asset
  • Helping line managers to understand the role of flexible approaches to the deployment of individuals in enhancing organisational performance
  • Implementing HR and mobility policies to enhance commitment, loyalty and engagement

Work intensification, wellbeing and work-life balance

In addition to implementing flexible approaches to the deployment of personnel, identifying the skills and behaviours required in different locations, and advising on policy implications, global mobility professionals should be aware of the unintended consequences of flexible working and individual flexibility.While flexible working can lead to job satisfaction and organisational commitment, it may require employees to trade significant additional effort for flexibility. For example, employees who undertake international roles through commuting or frequent business travel may experience stress and exhaustion through their frequent flyer lifestyle. Those who undertake international roles virtually can experience personal autonomy, but this can lead to employees creating their own work intensification – for instance, by extending their working day to operate across global time zones.It is, therefore, critical that the neutrality of the concept of flexible working, flexibility and their contribution to high-performance working be questioned. As well as creating positive performance outcomes, organisational and individual flexibility can lead to work intensification and poor work-life balance.As Brexit approaches – and global mobility professionals are called upon to contribute to strategic decisions on the means of raising return on investment and organisational performance outcomes – a balanced view of how flexible approaches to mobility can contribute will be critical to organisational success.
Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.For information on sponsorship opportunities, call Fiona Murchie, managing editor, on +44 (0)1892 891334, or email A range of aligned products and resources will be available from the new Relocate Global e-commerce store, coming later this year.

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