Flexible work boosts productivity, ILO says

Flexible work arrangements, including reduced work hours adopted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, can benefit economies, businesses and workers and allow for a healthier work-life balance, according to an International Labour Organization study.

"Short-time work (or) work-sharing measures or other forms of job retention help to reduce the volume of work and to maintain employment on a larger scale," said the "Working Time and Work-Life Balance Around the World "report published on Friday.

The report found "powerful evidence" that providing workers with greater flexibility in deciding when, where and how they work resulted in positive business outcomes, including improved productivity. Restricting such flexibility resulted in "substantial costs, including increased turnover".

Pandemic impact

"This report shows that if we apply some of the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis and look very carefully at the way working hours are structured, as well as their overall length, we can create a win-win, improving both business performance and work-life balance," Jon Messenger, lead author of the report, said.

The study looked at two main aspects: working hours and work schedules or arrangements. It analyzed different work time arrangements and their effects on work-life balance, including shift work, on-call work, compressed hours and hours-averaging schemes.

During the pandemic, it said, work-sharing or short-time work policies and measures adopted by countries such as Germany were "found to have encouraged companies to respond to reduced demand for their products and services by reducing hours of work instead of cutting jobs".

Moreover, flexible working hours, such as those created using working-time accounts, enabled individuals, companies or industries to collectively cut work hours, while increasing work hours in new economic bottleneck areas such as healthcare or pharmaceutical industries.

Asia and the Pacific is the region with the highest proportion of workers who regularly work more than 48 hours a week, where nearly half of all workers, or 46.7 percent, work long hours.

The highest proportions of workers with such long work hours are in southern Asia at 57.1 percent. The region with the lowest proportion of workers with long work hours is Eastern Europe at 4.5 percent.

The report also cautioned that the benefits of some flexible arrangements, such as better family life, may be accompanied by costs, including greater gender imbalances and increased health risks.

The study also highlighted that working time is one of the key tools used to help counter threats posed by the pandemic to the economy.