A New Era Of Flexible Working
It’s always got my goat that flexibility within the workplace has been seen as a perk and not standard practice for employees. It got my goat even more that many workers who sought flexible working schemes were then marginalised because too many organisations equated commitment with the ability to work long hours. There has also been an assumption that those who seek flexibility do not want to progress their careers and are thus labelled as less ambitious.
I have spent most of my career with companies that expected coats on back of chairs 9-5, Monday to Friday – despite the progression of technology meaning that there were many other ways to work more productively and that people didn’t necessarily need to work in the office all the time nor work in the same way anymore.
I’ve heard from friends about bosses unhappy with lateness yet unwilling to take into account the hour of work they did from their phones and laptops prior to arriving at the office, or from home the night before. I’ve had conversations with companies who thought offering 8.30-5 instead of 9-5.30 meant they were being flexible. I know of employers who didn’t allow remote working because they were worried about their staff skiving off and I’ve read about those that say no to a blended work force because it’s considered harder to manage despite the many benefits it can bring to the company and its staff .
Pre COVID, there were countless organisations promoting their commitment to flexible working but then not implementing it in practice, with too many being of the outdated opinion that you needed to be present to ensure you were performing what was required in your role. I always thought it was a ridiculous notion ¬- after all, we are adults, not school kids – and if we can’t be trusted to perform our job in the best way we see fit, doing the hours agreed in our contract (from wherever that may be), in whatever way yields the best results, then it’s my belief that there is a bigger issue at hand.
Breaking the cycle
It’s easy to become enshrined in the 9-5 “bums on seats” culture though. Even me – with all my passion for flexibility and workplace freedoms – I still found it hard to break the cycle when I became self-employed. Despite never agreeing with set hours and knowing that I was working my arse off, I still felt guilty. After 20 years of being told the hours I needed to work and most of the time – how I should be working too – I suddenly had the freedom to work how and where I wanted and it felt really strange to have that control (I’d like to say back – but I never had it in the first place) over my own working day.
No one was going to reprimand me if I wasn’t at my desk at 9am every day and once I got my head around that fact, I soon adapted to a flexible working pattern. On some days I’d start work at 11am and do a 4 hour day, other days I’d work from 8am and finish at 8pm. Sometimes you’ll find me burning the midnight oil and working into the early hours, sometimes I swap days off and work on weekends instead. But mostly my hours are stop start throughout the day so I can work around my family and ensure I’m responding to my clients within a reasonable time frame. I normally work from my home office but pre-pandemic, I liked to work a day in London each week in shared working space with business partners, so I had some interaction with people over the age of 5 and could meet with clients too. Occasionally I’d work from my parents when I need help with the kids and sometimes from my sofa while the TV plays babysitter. Hell, sometimes I’d even work 9-5 from a client office!
This may not suit everyone – many employees will prefer the structure of set hours, a single workplace, the buzz of an office and a defined way of doing their job – and that’s fine. My point is that when, where and how you do your job across the week and month should be something that you have a lot of input into. I’ve now found a rhythm I am comfortable with and as a result I am more productive, more motivated, my clients are happy, it suits my home life and I get more enjoyment and satisfaction from what I do.
Along came 2020
Of course, 2020 has been a game changer in so many ways. The pandemic has forced businesses across the globe to reassess their approach to flexible working with many having to change their stance from “it can’t be done” to “let’s give it a go”. For many organisations, there quite simply has been no other alternative. Businesses have had to (and if they haven’t yet, they will need to) become more agile, more experimental and more creative in order to succeed and in thousands of cases, to stay afloat and enabling staff to work remotely and flexibly will without a doubt have saved many companies from going under.
In the last few months there have been so many existing work practices and old fashioned attitudes that have been challenged, not least the antiquated view that employees need to spend long hours chained to their office desk in order to be seen as successful and therefore succeed.
According to Mercer, pre-pandemic, 35% of HR leaders said flexibility policies were not widely promoted, now 90% offer flexible working options. This is no small thing and I hope that this continues to become part of company culture and that post COVID, firms do not revert back to traditional practices.
For some, the switch to working flexibly will have been easily managed, for others, it would have meant a massive change in infrastructure, management and working practices – something that cannot be implemented overnight. But creating or at least working towards a framework for workplace flexibility on a long term basis has numerous benefits for all concerned.
Flexible Working – The benefits
• Allowing staff greater autonomy builds greater trust with your workforce. By enhancing their value proposition and empowering them to take control over their own work life, you meet the ever-increasing need for a healthier work-life balance. This can really make a difference to the happiness and mental health of your employees.
• It gives organisations access to a wider talent pool. By adapting to a truly flexible approach you’ll open up opportunities to attract a better quality of candidate. Research consistently confirms that for many employees work-life balance is just as important as their basic salary – so offering flexibility means you can attract and retain a whole new and diverse pool of talent who can grow their career with you without having to sacrifice their outside commitments. This naturally leads to lower staff turnover and better value for money from your recruitment process. You can also widen your recruitment net as you are not limited sourcing talent geographically to where your office is based.
• This in turn could address the geographic inequality in the UK. With an employee’s ability to work from anywhere, someone from Lancaster has the same opportunity as someone from London of securing a job role regardless of where the company is based.
• With staff in control of their hours and able to work their professional life around home commitments, absenteeism and sickness is less likely.
• Save on costs – if a permanent work space for all employees isn’t a necessity – it provides businesses with an opportunity to either downsize office space or get rid of it completely.
• By offering remote working and home working you are doing your bit for the environment too – eliminating commuting for your employees means you will be contributing to reducing their and your businesses carbon footprint.
• The “Gift of Time”. Even stripping out the commute will give staff back time in their day – sometimes a significant amount – which can be better spent. Whether that’s more time with their family, more time to achieve a healthier lifestyle, to focus on self care and relax, it’s likely to mean staff are less stressed and more motivated, meaning many companies, in return for offering flexible working will enjoy greater productivity.
Flexible Working – The future
Given that COVID-19 forced many employers to very quickly adopt a flexible approach to working, it’s very likely, that post lockdown, employees – who have had a taste of how working flexibly can benefit both themselves and the company they work for – will be resistant to returning to the old ways of working. A new report The Flexible Future of Work conducted by O2, in partnership with ICM and YouGov, found that employees will be reluctant to give up their new way of working with 81% of respondents expected post lockdown to work from home at least one day a week with 33% expecting to work from home for most of the week. Indeed, global giants such as Twitter, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have already noted this sentiment and declared that their flexible working arrangements will continue for the foreseeable.
What lockdown has shown is that employees can work flexibly and maintain (and in many cases increase) productivity levels, so it’s certainly not unreasonable for them to ask for this to continue and will be hard for many employers to justify why they would refuse.
Not everyone will agree but for me, flexibility, where you are given the freedom and control to work how you want, where you want and the hours that suit you best is a no brainer and provides a more agile, creative, collaborative and progressive company and workforce.