The proposed 'right to disconnect' after work hours is welcome, but not enough
One of the factors that I have generally understood to be an increasingly important driver behind the flexible learning in HE agenda has been the changes in wider society. Most notably, technological advances have already impacted many sectors of society, including the workplace, so that employees can work from home or while on the move more frequently than ever before, and the traditional boundaries between our tried and tested 8hrs of work, 8hrs of sleep and the remaining 8hrs of 'leisure', are being eroded. It is something I have experienced and continue to experience. I was a home-based worker with the Higher Education Academy for 4 years, living in Oxford while the HEA's offices were in York, about 200 miles away. I travelled a considerable amount and it made sense not to have to relocate, and the HEA successfully organised its technological provision to allow its home-based employees to engage in remote meetings with York-based staff.I sometimes wondered if Cross Country trains would decide to charge me office space as I spent a lot of time travelling with my laptop on my lap! I rarely worked a 9 to 5 day, often catching a 6.35 train or working late into the evening, but I also had the flexibility to take time out during the day time if I needed to. It was a system which worked and worked well. There are many articles predicting the rise of this sort of pattern of 'flexible working' and I have generally believed that this would eventually become the norm, opining that as a result higher education institutions would need to adjust and become more flexible themselves in order to have a more seamless intersection with employers.
I was intrigued, therefore, to read an article in this week's 'The Conversation' which reports a move in France to legislate in favour of employees having the right to 'disconnect' and to ignore emails from employers during evenings and weekends so that time with friends and family is not affected by work distractions or feelings of guilt. Not only so - the idea of legislating about the issue is already extraordinary - but the proposed legislation would make it the employers' responsibility to manage 'this intrusive technology and its effects on employees', rather than the employees' - which has traditionally been the case. Gillian Symon, Professor of Organisation Studies at Royal Holloway University, the writer of the article, is cautiously positive about the initiative. Her own research indicates that 'there needs to be respect for individuals’ chosen work-life boundaries at all levels within organisations'. That, coupled with the fact that 'the proposed legislation acknowledges the considerable research that suggests that we need to psychologically detach from work regularly, or risk becoming exhausted and losing our creativity' and there .is a developing argument against flexible working. This in turn could have a knock-on effect on institutions embracing ever increasing levels of flexible learning. However, Symon takes a sideways step. Questioning what 21st century working lives are like, she concludes:
To support flexible working, we may need flexible legislation that is based on other considerations than time alone, including where and how we work best. It’s very unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution; researchers and policymakers are going to have to find more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem.
Much of this can apply to flexible learning, although it is unlikely to require legislation! But a greater understanding of where and how we work best is also likely to inform institutions about where and how their students learn best. We already know that a one-size-fits-all solution to the needs of 21st century students doesn't exist and that 'more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem' need to be found and implemented. Symon's research suggests that 'we might be making sense of our lives in radically different ways in the 21st century' and that 'we distinguish between online and offline lives rather than work and non-work hours, and we think more about how we prioritise time, rather than how we divide it'. This too applies to students and their learning, and especially part-time students who are combining work with study.
I agree with Symon. If we continue to conceptualise our lives and time in terms of the traditional work/sleep/leisure segments and to expect, albeit tacitly, workers (and learners) to somehow incorporate and manage the complexities introduced by digital technologies within these boundaries, something will eventually have to give way, most probably people's health, both physical and mental. If, on the other hand, we are able to redefine those boundaries and to accept that during our periods 'online' we may need to combine tasks relating to our employment, to our social and family lives, building in specific 'offline' periods alongside these - which might also, with a little creative thinking, incorporate tasks relating to employment, social and family lives - then there is every possibility that flexible learning can be added to the mix.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.