Last reviewed 28 February 2017
How can employers stuck in nine to five thinking free themselves up for flexible working? Jude Tavanyar explores the considerations for any organisation wishing to adopt a flexible working approach.
According to a recent study of flexible working by Lancaster University’s Work Foundation(1), 2017 is the year when over half of the organisations in the UK are likely to have adopted flexible working, and by 2020, that statistic will have increased to 70%.
The Work Foundation’s report is, of course, good news. There is a significant body of evidence that organisations which enable flexible working schedules are taking a major step towards improving employee motivation and commitment, attracting and retaining talent from a broader “talent pool” that would be possible if the same organisations were restricted to conventional 9–5 office hours and fixed location, and ultimately enhancing their productivity and performance.
By adopting flexible working practices, businesses of all shapes and sizes are also opening themselves to other significant benefits, not least of which include the positive impact on the organisational balance sheet of a workforce which can work flexibly from multiple locations without the costs of physical workspace in a central location. Furthermore, there is significant evidence that flexible hours enable a more balanced life for employees, combining career, family obligations and personal interests more easily, and thereby significantly increasing motivation and reducing stress and the prospect of “burnout”.
There are obvious reasons why a “traditional” full-time working culture which emphasises fixed office hours in a set location is one which actively disadvantages a very significant proportion of the UK workforce. Organisations such as Women Like Us(2) highlight the limitations this kind of corporate environment imposes for working parents and carers (predominantly women) seeking to balance family responsibilities with paid work; other commentators emphasise how both women and men in the “Generation Y” demographic seek a far greater level of flexibility in their working lives than their predecessors did, one that is not catered for in the full time, fixed hours, centralised working culture.
On top of this, it is not difficult to see how organisations with rigid structures, job design and working practices risk perpetuating the kind of “monochrome” working culture where diversity is pretty much invisible at senior level. Numerous studies of senior management teams in FTSE 100 organisations bear out the detrimental impact of executive boards that do not represent the talents, perspectives and brainpower of their workforce to junior level, or within the external population. This lack of diversity signals other concerns — a potential loss of agility in responding to challenges and a damaging message of “cultural stagnation” that may put such organisations at a serious disadvantage in comparison with their more versatile, culturally-representative competitors.
These arguments are not, of course, in any way new. The nature of organisational life has been evolving at high speed in recent years. Commentators such as Professor Lynda Gratton(3) highlight the impact of “advanced technologies, societal values, changing demographics and rapid globalisation” in those profound changes. Managing complex, flatter workplace structures has become the order of the day, according to Gratton, and knowledge sharing across teams, divisions and companies increasingly a requirement to survive in a landscape where connection and collaboration within and among businesses have taken precedence over the hierarchical “command and control” leadership structures of the 20th century.
But if the case for “flexible working” is irrefutable, what is getting in the way? The Work Foundation study warned that there are many challenges to be overcome before personnel at all levels and within all kinds of organisations are able to really experience the benefits, not least among them a shift in “organisational mindset” which enables hard-fixed assumptions and concerns about flexibility to be openly aired, discussed and resolved.
First, the definition of flexibility is pretty broad-ranging, including “mobile working” from multiple locations outside the established office base, through job sharing — where two people do one job and split the hours; part-time work — working fewer than full time hours; compressed hours working — working full time hours but within fewer days and flexitime — where an employee chooses when he or she starts and ends work (while working certain “core hours”). All options need to be considered broadly within any organisation seeking to introduce a flexible working approach, and consultation between Human Resources (HR) and staff at all levels to gauge the options and “best fit” practices for a thriving workforce that can meet the strategic needs of the business is a key part of this consideration. Training in flexible working for relevant personnel is critical, and competitor analysis and cross-business collaboration in an atmosphere of openness and trust enables key learnings from experience to be broadly shared.
Second, remote working requires technological support for all personnel working from hubs or home offices. Even more crucially it requires careful consultation, planning and implementation in order for those employees used to a centralised office with face-to-face contact to adjust to new circumstances where they might quickly otherwise feel isolated. Individual personality preferences come into play here — while some staff may do their best work in a quiet environment with time and space to think (and polish their ideas before sharing them), others, who prefer to share their ideas freely and gain considerable energy from being in face-to-face contact with others, might very well flounder at first in the remote workplace setting and will need more considered support.
Third, and perhaps most critical of all, employers wishing to change with the times need to show from board level downwards that they mean business when supporting flexibility within their working culture. This means transparent, collaborative policymaking and challenging long-standing myths — for example, that part-time, flexible working is only for junior roles, or that “being serious about your job means working all hours at the cost of personal and family life”. It also means senior leaders “walking the talk”, showing in their own working approach that it is possible to achieve high performance and leave on time, work from outside the office and collaborate with staff at all levels by building trusting, supportive relationships over distance through appropriate technological channels.
Achieving flexibility and managing performance in a flexible working culture is no soft option for HR leads and corporate change executives. It requires a considerable willingness to openly discuss fears and challenges, to consult widely with staff at all levels, and to be willing to learn from experience, and share experience, with external stakeholders in order to create a growing body of best practice. Finally, it requires senior leaders to CEO level to create a working culture which emphasises the dual necessities of trust and of letting go of a degree of control. In other words, a culture which is adaptable — and trusting — enough to measure success less by micro-managing process and more by long distance, collaborative review of performance through outputs and outcomes, thereby developing and enabling their employees’ innovative potential. By creating the conditions for such a culture — where flexible hours and remote working are not just options for a few, but a well-established choice for the many — employers are putting trust at the very heart of their company ethos. In doing so, they are providing the environment for sustainable, fulfilling and productive relationships and the positive performance outcomes that accompany it.
(1)Working Anywhere: a Winning Formula for Good Work? — The Work Foundation, 2016
(2)Women Like Us, provides careers advice for women with children
(3) Professor Lynda Gratton, Future of Work and Hot Spots Movement Consortium