Flexible working practices and the impact of organisational and national cultures

“…research has shown that flexible work arrangements have the potential to improve psychological and behavioural outcomes such as burnout, retention, and organisational performance indicators”

Flexible working is still too often seen as something that is only relevant for those with families. Even in that context, it can still be difficult for someone to ask for flexible working – such as father’s wanting to spend more time with their children. A recent piece in the HR Director suggested that,

“In its most broad definition, it is about adopting an agile mindset.  Allowing employees to do their best work, where and when it works for both them – and the organisation”

But what is it that gets in the way of people taking up flexible working?

A timely piece of research published in the January 2018 edition of Human Resource Management Journal explored the impact of organisational characteristics and national culture on the uptake of flexible working arrangements.

The research

The researchers explored flexible working arrangements, absenteeism and turnover against the nine GLOBE cultural dimensions.

Flexible working arrangements were defined as a package including:

  • Flexitime
  • Job sharing
  • Compressed work week
  • Teleworking (or virtual working)

The GLOBE dimensions were developed through a 10-year research programme and published in a book edited by Robert House, Paul Hanges, Mansour Javidan and Peter Dorfman. The GLOBE dimensions are:

  1. Institutional collectivism: the extent to which organisational and societal institutional practices encourage and reward collective distribution of resources and collective action.
  2. In-group collectivism: the extent to which people express pride, loyalty, and cohesiveness in their organisations or families.
  3. Power distance: the breadth of social classes, availability of resources, access to information, social mobility and how power is used in a society or organisation.
  4. Uncertainty avoidance: the extent to which a society, organisation, or group relies on social norms, rules, and procedures to mitigate against the unpredictability of future events.
  5. Future orientation: the extent to which a collective encourages and rewards future-oriented behaviors such as planning and delaying gratification.
  6. Gender egalitarianism: the extent to which a society, organisation or group minimises gender inequality.
  7. Humane orientation: the extent to which an organisation or society encourages and rewards individuals for being fair, altruistic, friendly, generous, caring, and kind to others.
  8. Performance orientation:  the extent to which a community encourages and rewards innovation, high standards, excellence, and performance improvement.
  9. Assertiveness: the extent to which people are assertive, confrontational, and aggressive in their relationships with others.

The research sample consisted of 4,790 organisations across 21 countries. The organisations were selected via the Cranfield Network on Comparative Human Resource Management (CRANET). Organisations were chosen based on the availability of information about cultural practices, flexible working arrangements and with at least 80% of employees working full-time.

The findings

  1. The use of flexible working arrangements was highest in organisations within future-oriented societies and cultures that were:
  • Individualistic rather than collectivistic
  • Low in power-distance; and uncertainty avoidance
  • High in gender egalitarianism; humane orientation; performance orientation; and assertiveness

2. Those employees who used flexible working arrangements tended to work in organisations that were larger, service-oriented, private, high-tech, global, with more women, more younger people and unionised.

3. Those organisations where employees use flexible working arrangements had less absenteeism and turnover.

4. Use of flexible working arrangements mediated the relationship between absenteeism and turnover, and national culture practices and organisational characteristics.

5. The use of flexible working arrangements, along with absenteeism and turnover rates, are more likely to be moderated by cultures:

  • Low in institutional collectivism; in-group collectivism; power-distance; and uncertainty avoidance
  • High in gender egalitarianism; future orientation; performance orientation; and assertiveness

Implications and solutions

The research shows the importance of organisational culture and national culture being in alignment. It also shows that there are certain characteristics that create the right kind of environment for flexible working arrangements to thrive.

“When a societal value supports the use of a particular FWA, those who desire to use it do so without concern that others may disapprove. In contrast, employees who use FWAs that are inconsistent with the national cultural practices may experience tension or conflict stemming from the perceived disapproval of others”

  1. HR practitioners working in organisations with bases in different countries might need to review the policies, language and promotion of flexible working arrangements so that they better reflect the national culture. The researchers suggest rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach it might be better to adapt and adopt region by region.
  2. Organisations with high absence or turnover rates might find it helpful to carry out a diagnostic to test the extent to which flexible working (or lack of) is contributing to this. Exit interviews and sickness meetings often provide helpful data. However, this is only part of the picture around organisational culture. Diagnostic tools such as the Burke-Litwin model can help practitioners carry out a much deeper piece of work which will show what organisational cultural factors may or may not be helping flexible working take root.
  3. Organisations see how they score on the GLOBE dimensions. For example, if an organisation scores low in gender egalitarianism; humane orientation; performance orientation; and assertiveness then this gives a blueprint of areas to focus on.
  4. It can be helpful to develop managers in better understanding cultural differences and how this might impact working practices in their team. Giving managers the skills and confidence to have these discussions with team members could help improve motivation, morale and subsequently, performance.

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