Simon Norris argues that a self-regulating approach, in which staff are free to organise and manage their own time in a responsible way, can offer more benefits to employers than taking a heavy-handed

While the myth of the nine-to-five day lives on, the chances are that if you work in an office, you no longer have a working day that your parents' generation would recognise. The twin forces of technology and globalisation have transformed our working lives, removing both temporal and physical barriers.

Whether it is extended by a breakfast meeting or by deal-clinching evening drinks, the working day for many people rarely follows a prescribed formula. The concept of flexible working, where staff are free to adapt their working hours to their individual home and office commitments, is now widely practised. A flexible approach by employers can help to promote a happy workforce and a healthy work life balance.

The growing popularity of remote working is further blurring the dividing line between home and work time. In Europe, over 60% of Germans, 55% of Italians and 46% of French workers actively work remotely. Interestingly, only 11% of British workers do. However, working remotely has interruptions that would not be found in the office, be they troublesome children or an unexpected visitor.

Back in the workplace, the relationship between office hours and working hours is becoming increasingly blurred. The growing popularity of social networking, photo-sharing and blogging provides an ever-increasing source of distractions for staff. In response, managers are under mounting pressure to ensure that staff achieve their contracted working hours and that their time is used productively. Many organisations are concerned about excessive use of the internet, and selective blocking of websites is an increasingly popular solution. According to a survey of 600 global companies carried out by security firm Sophos, 50% of companies ban their employees from accessing certain websites.

This approach can lead to frustrations among staff, and can give the impression of an intolerant and inflexible working environment. Blocks can often be easily bypassed by using one of the wealth of proxy sites that replicate content from sites such as Facebook under a different domain name. Providing staff with block-free periods at scheduled times can cause productivity to grind to a halt as staff head for their desks to check their web mail or do their online banking. Blocking also often involves IT departments in a high level of inconvenience and administrative overheads, and seldom provides employers with any information about its effectiveness. It also requires a simple black and white classification of sites as permissible or banned, but many organisations are starting to recognise that the social side of the web, when used appropriately, can deliver valuable business benefits. One law firm was forced to reinstate access to Facebook on the basis that it was a vital tool for business networking.


The hours that people work are becoming more flexible, and providing a healthy work life balance has frequently been shown to improve productivity and aid staff recruitment and retention. The onus on employers to adopt an environment that supports the personal requirements of their staff, is greater than ever before. Employers only have to look at the figures to see that allowing reasonable access to the web can be beneficial to their staffs' well-being: social network sites are used by over 17% of the European online population.

Using the internet for socialising is clearly a different matter from using it to access illicit, illegal or discriminatory material. Here, blocking and disciplinary action are appropriate. But as a means for employers to ensure that staff use their time effectively, it is an inflexible solution that does little to help employees and organisations benefit from many of the advantages the Internet can provide.

Alternative solutions are now emerging. One approach is to measure the amount of time employees spend on different websites or using PC applications. By giving an employer a clear breakdown of how working time is spent, this can help to ensure that staff are working effectively and meeting their contractual commitments.

If an open and transparent approach is taken, such systems can be introduced without a breakdown of trust between employer and employee. By allowing staff to view their own usage statistics, a self-regulating approach can be engendered. Rather than being nannied, staff are treated as mature adults and tend to respond in kind.

Apart from the psychological aspects, there are practical benefits in such an approach. Part of the problem with internet use is that following the labyrinthine trail of a story from one page to the next can cause users to lose track of time. Excessive personal surfing is thus frequently unintentional. Using technology tools that enable self-monitoring educates people about their own working habits, helping them to make better use of their time.

Having an insight into the working habits of each employee means that specific problems can be addressed at an individual level, without the need to impose rigid policies across the entire workforce. And such systems can provide a wealth of other information to help maximise efficiency. Comparing the productivity of staff working from home with those in the office can help to shape policies for home working. Statistics showing variations in productivity by time of day, or by day of week, can help managers to schedule internal meetings and other activities to best effect. Studying variations in working patterns across different teams, or with changing workloads, can also provide invaluable insights.

Patterns of work are changing, and there is no evidence to suggest a likely reversal in the trend towards flexibility. As we come to rely more heavily upon technology in both the work and personal spheres of life, employers and employees alike will look to technology to help them to monitor and improve their own working practices. A system that works to inform and protect both parties will surely equip them well to deal with the changing face of working life.