I’ve talked before about my desire to have a location-independent business and I’m actively working on this. It’s definitely easier to do this if you’re self-employed and your business isn’t customer-facing.

So what does that mean for those in employment? A recent article in People Management magazine (for HR managers) looked at different working policies and practices around at the moment, some of which are beneficial to employees, and others which are unfair.

The article explains that decentralised management has enabled employers to move away from the standard working hours of 9-5 Monday to Friday. People Management magazine view this as detrimental to staff and their relationship with their boss.

Is Flexible Working a Good Thing?

The author’s opinion is that while flexibility and autonomy is great for those who want it, zero hours contracts and poor conditions can be difficult to cope with, especially for those in lower-skilled jobs who can’t negotiate.

I was surprised to learn that in a survey carried out by CIPD found that most people on zero hours contracts were happy with them. This is a practice which, along with part time and casual employment, has increased by a third since the recession, yet the majority of these shift patterns are set by the employer.

Technology has also had an impact, but not quite in the way that you’d expect. The author quotes a sociology research associate who found that one large national retailer had a system to analyse weather, buying patterns and footfall to assess likely weekly income and giving shifts to staff accordingly, sometimes with only a few days’ notice. This meant that wages changed drastically throughout the month.

The article goes on to say that in some cases employees are turned into self-employed contractors due to changes in employment practices – such as chambermaids paid per room.

The writer says that some experts believe that more people will search for work via online platforms such as People Per Hour, known as the gig economy. I’ve looked at these sites a few times myself, but always decided against signing up to them, as the amount of work demanded is not equal to the remuneration. The fact that people are willing to work for a pittance to do a skilled task (writing, graphic design) undermines those who charge a fair price for their experience and causes a race to the bottom.

Case Studies

There were also some interesting case studies given. Two examples were of shift workers: one a care home manager, who works for a company which focuses on letting staff have as much autonomy as possible and allows managers time to spend on admin as well as caring. The teams are well-qualified and supported, although interestingly have little to do with HR, with any holiday and pay queries handled by senior management. The manager was happy with her job and often worked extra hours.

The other example was a man who helps homeless people on the streets of London. Shifts are flexible and usually involve working in the small hours. This works well for a lot of the staff and volunteers, who often pick up more shifts over the winter. The charity has strong policies in place to support anyone feeling the strain of their work, and managers are able to work more with clients than on paperwork.

On the other side, there was an interview with a cab driver for Uber, who says that he works at least 40 hours a week and makes about minimum wage. Initially working for an hourly rate, he now gets paid by the job and is reliant on users of the Uber app calling the nearest cab, so he competes with 40,000 other drivers in London.

The app calculates the drivers’ takings, but also controls how many of them there are on the roads and can adjust fares at will. They are responsible for their own car and working hours, resulting in cabbies feeling neither like employees or their own bosses and with no rights or sick pay.

Those who drive the “Lux” cars (the man in the case study has a seven-seater Mercedes) have to give Uber 28% of their earnings per week, which when fuel insurance, maintenance and NI and tax contributions are also taken off, leaves them with very little.

The last case study was a freelance IT contractor, who uses an “umbrella company” to manage his taxes and paperwork and which takes a percentage of his earnings. Work can be found via temporary employment agencies.

While the freelancer admits that contract work pays better than his previous employment, the main reason for the change was to work on different projects and meet new people, while at the same time avoiding office politics – something I definitely agree with.

It can be challenging to jump straight into a new piece of work with the pressure of having to get it right straight away, but the greater risk is of being given short notice of termination of the contract. And the work is not always guaranteed.

It seems that these new ways of working are here to stay, and HR teams and employers must make them as fair and stress-free on their staff and contractors as possible.