How important is flexibility at work for expatriates?

  • remote work
Published on 2023-11-28 at 14:00 by Asaël Häzaq
What will the work organization of the future look like? Amidst the options of 100% in-person and 100% remote work, alternative work forms are gaining popularity. Many employees advocate for increased flexibility but seek flexibility that ensures their protection. But what about expats?

Economic crisis, flexibility and expatriation

Some believed the reorganization of work brought about by the Covid pandemic would last. Lockdowns compelled companies to change the way they work, shifting from in-person to 100% remote working. Although remote work has existed for years, it is now propelled by extraordinary circumstances and resonates with a significant number of workers globally. Remote work provides increased flexibility, prompting employees to redefine their connection with work and organizational structure.  

However, the anticipated revolution hasn't materialized either. In the 2020-2021 period, some were predicting the end of traditional office work. Remote work also seemed like a cost-saving measure – no office space meant no rent, utilities, or maintenance expenses. Yet, on paper, these advantages don't necessarily outweigh the risks and losses. Many managers express concerns about their staff's decreased commitment and productivity, and challenges in organizing work.

The revolution is indeed in progress. Workers are leading the charge, seeking increased flexibility to better organize their days, depending on the industry. New work organization methods are also emerging among expats, driven by remote work and the rise of digital nomadism. This work model is not exclusive to self-employed expatriates but extends to employees as long as they find a company that supports it. Recruitment agencies specifically advise companies to clearly outline whether a job offer entails 100% in-person, remote work, or a hybrid model. According to them, attracting foreign talent will require greater workplace flexibility.

What do laws say about flexible work around the world?

United Kingdom

In July, the British government unveiled a new Flexibility Bill to simplify the process for employees seeking to work flexibly. This allows employees to request changes to their working hours or patterns, such as transitioning to part-time, compressing their workweek into four days, or working remotely either partially or entirely. Unlike the current practice, the law enables employees to make such requests without having to justify them. However, employers are not obligated to automatically approve the employee's request; instead, the request will be assessed. According to Kevin Hollinrake, the Minister for Enterprise, this reform is expected to benefit millions of workers in the UK.

According to the "Flex-Jobs 2023" Index by flexible working specialists Timewise, 9 out of 10 people in the UK are actively seeking a flexible job. However, the available supply is not keeping pace, with only 3 in 10 jobs offering flexible work. The progress has been slow since 2015 when it was at 10%, but there was an acceleration in the supply of flexible working in 2020, 2021, and 2022, increasing from 15% in 2019 to 17% in 2020, 24% in 2021, and 30% in 2022. However, the supply only increased by one point in 2023. Another constraint is that part-time positions are often less remunerated than remote ones. Flexible working is more prevalent in the social (45%), human resources (39%), finance (38%), and marketing (38%) sectors. Conversely, due to the nature of the professions, there is very little flexibility in factories (11%) and construction (10%).


The Canadian government believes that flexibility contributes to enhanced worker autonomy and improved quality of life; employees who can determine their working hours tend to be more responsible and engaged in the company's activities. According to Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey on flexible working hours, in April 2022, 30.3% of employees aged 15 to 69 had the freedom to set their own start and end times. More than twice as many (64.7%) consider flexibility to be an "important or essential factor for employment." About 58.5% of the working population either works 100% from home or follows a hybrid arrangement (59.8%), nearly 6 out of 10. All these workers affirm being free to choose their working hours, and Statistics Canada attributes this to the increased flexibility afforded to certain professions.

As observed in the UK example, flexibility varies across sectors, and in some cases, it may not be applicable at all. According to the Statistics Canada survey, workers in management (52.3%), natural sciences (50.8%), business, finance, and administration (39.5%), as well as arts, sports, recreation, and culture (36%), experienced the highest levels of flexibility. On the other hand, sectors like transportation, manufacturing, and healthcare offered less flexibility (16.2%, 16%, and 15.5% respectively). Canadian law permits a "relaxation of employment conditions for federally regulated employees." Workers who have completed 6 consecutive months on the job can request flexible working hours, which may involve changes to the number of hours worked, the work schedule, or the workplace.


In September 2022, the Belgian Parliament decided to implement a labor market reform known as the "Job Deal." This reform promotes flexibility and eases the rules governing work organizations to foster a better work-life balance. With increased autonomy, workers are expected to be more dedicated to the company and assume greater responsibility. One of the key measures of this reform is the introduction of the four-day week. While the law doesn't mandate companies to adopt a four-day workweek, it allows employees to do so while maintaining the same number of hours. A full-time employee, for instance, can now work 9 hours a day, surpassing the previous 8-hour limit, and consolidate their work over four days.

Employees are required to submit a written request to their employer, and if they want to work 10 hours a day, they need the approval of the social partners (with a collective agreement first permitting 10 hours of daily work). The reform also grants full-time employees the flexibility to adjust their working weeks. For instance, they can work 41 hours one week and then 35 hours the next. However, the law sets a clear limit: 45 hours per week and 9 hours per day.

Flexible work and respect for workers' rights 

Several countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and New Zealand, guarantee flexibility in their labor markets. In the Netherlands, flexibility, referred to as "flex work," was considered a solution during the economic crisis of the 1980s. Both the Netherlands and Denmark are proponents of "flexicurity," an approach that benefits both employers and employees, boasting one of the highest levels of worker protection. However, this model faced challenges in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis and, more recently, the 2020 pandemic.

Critics argue that excessive flexibility undermines the labor market. The growing prevalence of part-time jobs raises concerns as they are generally paid less than full-time positions. Trapped in the cycle of part-time employment, vulnerable populations become even more fragile. They are also less committed to their company and more prone to turnover. Moreover, attracting foreign talent becomes challenging, and those with fewer qualifications may find themselves caught in a spiral of precarious employment.

Recognizing the challenges associated with flexibility, Singapore's Minister of Labor, Gan Siow Huang, has unveiled plans to reform flexible working arrangements. The announcement on October 4 outlined the "broad strokes," with more details expected in 2024. According to the Minister, flexible working arrangements should not be overly "rigid" as this would not only harm companies but also negatively impact workers. The Ministry of Labor encourages employers and workers to come to mutual agreements. However, Labor Party MP Louis Chua urges the government to enact flexible working legislation to safeguard workers rather than merely providing non-binding recommendations.

Enforcing your rights as an expat

Ensuring the respect of their rights is crucial for both local and expatriate workers. In countries where flexible working is allowed, the laws are generally correctly applied, but the challenge lies in having those rights acknowledged. The race for flexibility can sometimes yield unintended consequences. Instead of improving time management and, therefore, work-life balance, it might lead to confusion, especially for hybrid or fully remote workers. The Belgian reform has incorporated the principle of the right to disconnect to better safeguard employees. Any company with more than 20 employees must define the details of disconnection through a collective agreement. This means employees should not be reachable outside of working hours, whether they are at the company or remotely.

However, reshaping work organization will be a gradual process. States are just beginning to adopt concepts like digital nomadism, remote working, and "workation." These various forms of work have yet to confront the challenges posed by economic crises profoundly impacting countries. Foreign workers, particularly those with fewer qualifications, are on the frontline. It is the responsibility of governments to determine the optimal approach that combines workplace flexibility with the preservation of workers' rights.