In a previous post, we talked about the megatrends that will shape the way we work. Topics like urbanisation, the “Silver Society”, and increasing individualisation are forging a labour market that is more flexible, but why is it important, and just what exactly does “flexible” mean when it comes to working?

The “flexibilisation” of labour is multidimensional: that is, it affects governments, business, and individuals alike. On the macro side of things, governments will need to adapt to new demands created by a changing economy, namely through the support, enablement, and implementation of appropriate programs and legal regulations. An example of this might be accommodating for increased mobility of commuting workers and improving transportation infrastructures between regions.

On the micro side, the focus will be to meet the needs and interests of both the employer and the employee to adequately accommodate the unpredictability of business fluctuations. You may have noticed that there is an increasing trend for companies to be leaner, more agile, and more competitive—these are all responses to the increasing flexibilisation of labour.

Finally, for workers, the flexibilisation of labour empowers them to take control of their personal scheduling, work environment, and workload. Depending on a person’s life circumstances, flexible work may be a temporary or even a permanent solution to earn income, maintain personal freedom, and secure financial independence.

Forms of flexibility

Flexible work can manifest in a variety of forms. An article published by Peter A. Reilly in the European Journal of Work and Organisation Psychology identifies five types of labour flexibility:

  1. Numerical
  2. Functional
  3. Temporal
  4. Locational
  5. Financial

Numerical flexibility is adjusting the number of employees based on the needs of the employer. A good example of this is seasonal work and fixed-term contracts. Numerical flexibility has actually quite a long-rooted history in the gastronomy, hospitality, and construction sectors, but as megatrends like digitisation and connectivity continue to change the landscape of work, we can expect to see increased numerical flexibility in other industries as well. In fact, the rising prevalence of hiring on-demand as well as the outsourcing of online-related work is a form of numerical flexibility.

Functional flexibility is the extent to which employees can be assigned to different roles. The job rotation model is a traditional example, where employees take on different tasks depending on their scheduled shift or the demands of the business. More recently, companies focusing on optimising delivery and reducing overhead costs are driving a newer trend of hiring “full-stack employees”, or employees skilled across a spectrum of functions rather than a specialisation. This is based on the principle that lower levels of specialisation have positive effects on the flexibility of an organisation, allowing companies to deliver faster.

On the employee side, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions cites a direct relationship between functional flexibility and long-term skills retention, and that “making optimal use of the employee’s capacity to perform different tasks is positively related to skills development and decision-making”.

Temporal flexibility is the variation of the number of hours worked and the scheduled time off work. Over time, flexible working hours, and part-time work are all examples of temporal flexibility. In Switzerland, as more and more women join the workforce, the proportion of part-time employees has risen to such levels that Switzerland now ranks second in Europe (behind the Netherlands) as the country with the highest percentage of part-time employees. As you may guess, the family is given as the most common reason for undertaking part-time work.

Other data from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO, 2015) reveal that 44.6% of employees in Switzerland enjoy some form of temporal flexibility. Interestingly enough, those with a tertiary-level education are more likely to work flexibly, indicating that the flexibilisation of work is something felt across all industries and skill levels.

Locational flexibility includes forms of work where the employee finds him- or herself outside of the normal working location. Traditional examples include business trips, but the most well-known example today is indubitably working from home. A more common occurrence is working on the commute. Increased mobility among today’s population plays an active role in the decentralisation of our work. Think about it: how many people do you know have mentioned working from a café, a co-working space, or (perhaps somewhat cliché) on a mountain or by the beach?

Finally, financial flexibility is the adjustment of wages and benefits to reflect the supply and demand for labour. Sales commission and year-end bonuses are the most well-known examples of this.

While you may not be familiar with terms such as temporal, functional, or locational flexibility, chances are you’ve encountered one or all of the examples above in the workplace before. As you can see, there are advantages of flexible work for both employers and employees—the magic happens when both sides benefit at the same time from the working relationship.

About the author
Viktor Calabrò is Founder of Coople. He is also co-author of the book Flexible Workforce and was named Swiss Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in 2014.

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