Over the past several years, the implementation of flexible working arrangements has become a staple in top organizations around the world.
So where did the flex working trend originate — and what can we learn from the rise of the flex worker?
This is a brief overview on the history of flexible working, from the beginning. Here you'll discover the key lessons to take away from the past to achieve a better, more flexible future.
Back in 1930, famed economist John Maynard Keynes penned an essay, “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren,” in which he forecasted a 15 hour workweek by the year 2030. Now that we're less than nine years away, it seems his prediction may have been off — however, we are working much less than we did at the time it was written.
In the U.S. in 1900, the average worker spent 2,983 hours working annually. By 1938, that number experienced a steep drop to 1,756 hours over a year due to World War I and lead-up to the Second World War, the Great Depression, and other political and economic factors.
Charlie Giattino, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser (2013) - "Working Hours". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/working-hours' [Online Resource]
In the following years the annual average began to rise again, reaching 1,989 working hours for workers by the year 1950. Subsequently, there has been a continual steady decline in the time the average person spet working each year — albeit at a much slower rate.
Today the 40-hour workweek is considered standard. But how did it develop?
You may be surprised to learn that one of the world's most famous cereal companies was a pioneer in flexible working schedules. In the 1930s, Kellogg implemented a six-hour workday, cutting the time spent working down to 30 hours a week.
The standardization of a five-day work week is often traced to Henry Ford's decision in the early 1900s to shut down his factories for Saturday and Sunday, believing his workers needed more than one day of rest to improve their home lives and increase their overall productivity during working hours.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s the call for shorter workdays grew louder, and was often thought of as a way to increase efficiency by reducing fatigue. In 1938, the U.S. passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, capping the workweek at 44 hours before requiring workers to be paid overtime. By 1940, that was limited to 40 hours and paved the way for today's eight-hour, five-day workweek.
From there, employees began seeking further improvements and the demand for more favorable working conditions grew.
While the origins of flex working may have looked much different than how we think of it today, the underlying root remains largely the same: Achieving a balanced work/life balance benefits individuals as well as their employers.
Now that we're beginning to see the new era of work take shape, it's time to review how the flex work trend became popular and examine where flexible working is headed next.
As technological advancements were made, the option to work from home — and eventually, from anywhere — became more common and began to emerge as a solution to address everything from urban commutes and traffic, to massive labour shortages.
In 1965, German management consultant Christel Kammerer argued that balancing childcare with professional responsibilities was to blame for the lack of women in the workforce — she proposed allowing employees to choose their start and end times, calling the proposed solution "flexiwork".
Though it's not rocket science, the term "telecommuting" was coined in the 1970s by NASA engineer Jack Nilles, who was, in fact, working remotely at the time.
Once the pandemic hit in early 2020, the flexible working trend became a prevalent topic in discussions around the future of work.
When he was asked about the current push for more flexible working schedules, Nilles had this to say: “I think the pandemic clearly is the force that I did not have available to me at the time. Now that it’s here, it has clearly altered things, and I think permanently."
What will flex work look like in the future? It's important not only to understand the implications of flex working during the transition back into physical offices, but also to examine how the trend will unfold in the years following the return.
If you're trying to make sense of what the workplace will look like in the years to come, just take a look at the wide range of employee sentiments surrounding a return to the office. Therein lies your answer. Reactions swing wildly from excitement to dread — and everywhere in between.
For many workers — particularly parents and those with other caregiving responsibilities — the option to become a flex worker greatly expands the opportunities afforded to them by offering a much-needed sense of control over their time management and work schedules.
That's just as true today as it was at the time. People have unique feelings and expectiations about where they'd like to work and how often.
One thing that we do know: flex working is just that, flexible. That means not only will schedules vary, but even what flexible work looks like in your organization is probably going to differ person-to-person.
While you may have specific policies in place to structure what is and is not offered in terms of work flexibility, each employee will likely shape and define their specific flavor of the flex worker experience.
Now that we're emerging from our homes, will the initial desire for in-person collaboration prevent employers from offering more flex work opportunities in the future?
If so, recent survey results indicate some startling news: 40% employees say they'll quit their jobs without flexible work options. The result would mean difficult not only retaining, but also attracting top talent.
With that in mind, there's never been a more oportune time to focus on your employees and improving their workplace experience.
One way to get started? Make sure you have the technology necessary to accommodate flex workers with Teem's employee experience mobile app that lets them book desks and conference rooms in advance or on demand — whether they're at home or in the office.
If you're considering implementing a flexible seating arrangement to maximize your available office space, consider modern alternatives to hot-desking. Learn how.