16 February 2016

Understanding flexible working

Flexible working requires careful planning, from implementation to management, in order for both employers and employees to use it to their advantage. Follow these best practice techniques:

A few years ago the term ‘flexible working’ was something pretty rare in a corporate environment. Working from the comfort of your living room or your local costa was viewed as a bit of an oddity. Today, however, we work in a global business environment where working practices are becoming increasingly flexible.

No longer is flexible working seen merely as an office worker ‘slacking off’. It has become a bit of a phenomenon; with companies starting to understand the benefits and embracing this concept as a new way of working. However, it does still require careful planning, from implementation to management, in order for both employers and employees to use it to their advantage.

The premise behind flexible working is that it suit the needs of the individual employee by varying hours and locations. This can be anything from working remotely or from home, flexi time to job sharing or career breaks. These days all employees have the right to request flexible working from their employer, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that employers have to oblige. And some don’t- viewing it as too big a step for their organisation. When really it’s more of a necessity.

In a world full of technological advancements, the 9-5 office environment is outdated, unproductive and dull; something that no business wants to be known for. Organisations shouldn’t view flexible working as a ‘nice to have’ employee benefit. They must recognize it as fundamental to the success of their organisation and staff performance, something that is core to an organisation's identity and of course, it’s employee value proposition.

There has been plenty of research that shows that a flexible workforce is a more productive and generally happier one. A better work life balance has been found to lower labour turnover, reduce absenteeism and unemployment as well as improving an employee’s overall health. It seems like a no brainer. But how can an organisation ensure they roll it out effectively?

Ben Black, director of My Family Care, a company dedicated to helping employers support their employees with balancing work and family, says that in order incorporate a flexible policy effectively, you must get your reason for doing it right from the start:

‘Flexible working cannot just be about cutting down on that miserable commute crammed into an overcrowded train. It has to be about culture and making sure you have employees who love- and yes I do mean love-working for your organisation. In that context, giving people some freedom in when and how they manage work is obvious. To be motivated people need purpose, mastery and autonomy. Autonomy is impossible without flexibility. It’s as simple as that’.

You must ensure you link your flexible working strategy to your overall company objective. A way to attract people to your business is to align your core values as a brand. Flexible working gives you the opportunity to create a lifestyle business that has purposefully built flexibility as a core value. This way, people can juggle work with other important aspects of their life and invest in you as an employer and as a brand.

Create a strategy that accounts for life events and not just day to day flexibility. Take full pay paternity leave for instance, which gives people flexibility when they really need it. And in essence, that's what makes this concept work; giving and taking at the right time.

In order to create a truly flexible work culture you should use specialist tools rather than just adapting technology and communication tools straight from the traditional workplace. This can help deliver the structure and control mechanisms necessary for managing homeworkers.

Try to virtualise everything that you’d do in the office, this includes office space and formalities but also more of the informal communications you’d have. Tools like Skype for Business or Yammer are a great way to replicate some of the social interactions employees would have if they were working ordinarily in an office with regular hours. Remember that humans are naturally social creatures and just because they’re working virtually or at irregular times, it doesn’t mean they should stop collaborating or socialising.

Obviously, a realistic challenge that needs to be addressed is how you manage those people who regard flexible working as a form of new found freedom. These are the people that see it as a day off or other form of staff downtime.  You’ll always find those who’ll try and take advantage of situations and push the rules wherever they can, regardless of where they are based.

Jason Downes from PowWowNow and a huge advocate of flexible working, stresses that when there is a breakdown of trust, there will always be ways to tighten control but taking away the flexible working option should be viewed as a last resort. He says, ‘It’s up to managers to understand what makes people tick and the reasoning as to why somebody is possibly drifting’.

He also adds that although this drifting can and does happen, it more often works in the opposite way;  ‘I find that when people are working remotely they feel the need to achieve better results to prove their worth and when they are in the office they also work extra hard as there time here is limited’.

So flexible working can actually be a useful for tool for retaining staff and making them more productive, just remember to ensure you consider the points above and you'll be an organisation that’s winning at work life balance in no time!

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