Work flexibility — a question of balance and confidence

 In Labour

According to a study by Polar Insight – ‘FLEX – Understanding flexible working in Portugal’ Portugal is the country that most lags behind other EU member-states when it comes to flexible working. But thanks to some multinationals and the growth of startups in co-working spaces, things are changing.

It is fair to say that despite the social shakeup caused by Portugal’s 25 April Revolution in 1974 the traditional paternalistic and highly hierarchical attitude of subservient and unquestioning employees is still deeply ingrained.
But a London and Lisbon based research company, Polar Insight has produced an in-depth report which explores flexible working in Portugal, offering an insight into why Portugal is still resistant to changes happening elsewhere in Europe, and how things are changing and how organisations based in Portugal can benefit from providing flexibility to their employees.
The report was unveiled this week at Second Home in Lisbon, a co-working space shared by both Portuguese and international startups and micro-companies like Polar Insight which is run by James Tattersfield (CEO) with the project managed by Beatriz Renault and Paula Gaia.
In a nutshell, the report ‘FLEX – Understanding flexible working in Portugal’ found from 756 respondents and 38 interviews that 97.4% valued flexibility at work, 78.4% said they did do for family reasons, 58.3% for personal balance, 52.4% for pursuing personal projects and 49.3% for personal interests.
Of those workers enjoying the most flexibility, these were usually male, aged 46 or over, with high incomes (€3,500+) and working in large companies in managerial positions with responsibilities coordinating staff.
For the rest, 61.1% were forced to work at employer premises, 48.9% had fixed entry and exit times and 33.9% reported difficulty changing working hours for personal reasons.
But what did some of the panel of invited speakers at the launch and those interviewed for the project think about flexible working in Portugal and do they think it is beneficial and a viable proposition?
“It’s difficult to define generically what flexibility is. If flexibility means more freedom to arrange your life, with less rigidity and more freedom to organise your time and balance work with family life, then flexibility is great,” says Miguel Fontes, CEO of Startup Lisboa which helps foreign entrepreneurs, startups and investors set up in Lisbon.
“If, on the other hand, flexibility is seen as a total invasion of your work life in your personal life, in which you can never switch off, where everyone thinks it is normal to answer an e-mail or a message at eleven at night, or to interrupt a dinner, or work on a Saturday or Sunday, then flexibility could be dreadful,” Fontes adds.
Sara de Sousa, Talent Manager at BLIP, a Porto-based software engineering company, agrees. “When working at any time and place it is difficult to know where the boundaries are and maintain a healthy balance between work and home, particularly a mental balance with today’s time management and technology challenges that are increasingly present in our lives.
“How can we manage all this? Flexibility carries with it a lot of responsibility and I say that when talking about flexibility and working different hours and in different locations we may not be able to find the perfect balance, but we can find a reasonable one. It requires lots of planning and organisation and demands a greater effort on our part,” she says.
Sousa says she remembers when starting out she had to justify to her line manager why she was a few minutes late. “It is interesting to see how far we have changed when looking at companies like Nestlé Portugal which has managed to give space to its employees”.
“I have been lucky to work in startups where flexibility values are encouraged, when you can start at 10, leave and leave at 4 as long as the work is done, dress casually and organise working life the way you want to,” she adds.
“Everybody, young and old, with greater or lesser experience, wants to work in a company that has the same values as they do. Everybody wants more flexibility and to learn more skills than the ones they were hired to do and in some jobs you don’t have to be physically in the office to be productive and do your job well,” agrees Rita Martins, a customer success assistant for OutSystems, a low-code platform for digital transformation.

A tradition of resistance
These are the opinions of young and dynamic professionals working for forward-looking companies in Portugal with a wide international reach and an experience of working methods which are ‘de rigueur’ in the UK, US, Germany and other EU countries.
Sara Sousa from BLIP points out some of the traditional realities of the Portuguese corporative culture still persist. “In Portugal we still have a culture of being present, flexibility breaks the norm and there is still a lot of prejudice about it,” she explains.
“Being at home, as long as you have a good internet connection and all the necessary tools to do your job means flexibility shouldn’t be an impediment. I think mentality has to change. Some people think that when someone works from home they aren’t doing anything and that’s not true. At home we can be more productive and have more focus on what we’re doing because there are less distractions,” she insists.

Nestlé – embracing change
One large corporate entity that participated in the project is Nestlé Portugal. Maria do Rosário Vilhena, an HR professional at the company says what’s important is that staff work for results and if these are achieved it doesn’t matter where somebody works and when. “What matters is that the job is done and that the person works accordingly. Do they have to be here from nine-five? No. They have to be here for as long as they are working”.
Alexis Pinheiro, Real Estate and Facilities Project Manager, who looks after the transformation of Nestlé’s site in Lisbon, says, “These new working solutions are a great challenge and we have to customise them to the reality of the company and its culture and that of the new generation.
“In truth, flexibility in Portugal is still in its infancy whereas in the UK it is already rooted in the culture of the country,” he observes.
Pinheiro says that in a multinational company like Nestlé, which has 25 different nationalities, it is important to understand how working flexibility can be implemented in different cultures that the company works with.
“We see flexibility as an incredible asset, which without confidence and leadership would not be possible. It has to come with the confidence of company leaders and only then can a better quality of life for employees be created,” Pinheiro stresses.
“It is fundamental to create the conditions so that employees can collect their kids from school without having their salaries docked, or abdicate a part of their personal lives later on. We have to create solutions that respect employees, and attract motivation through flexibility,” he says.
Flexibility has to be designed around a package of policies which are adaptable because the benefits of flexibility for some might not be so convenient for others”, concludes Rita Duarte, a branding specialist at Human Resource specialists Talenter.

Text: Chris Graeme