People & Culture

Are you making a success or a mess of flexible working?

When it comes to meeting the demands for new ways of working such as flexible hours, remote working and job sharing, many organisations still really struggle.

Issues of trust and management capability seem to make the issue fraught and the majority of companies I meet have got stuck in a pretty awful half-way house place where flexible working is tolerated or used as a perk, something to be given for good behaviour or withdrawn on bad. All of this is completely wrong in my mind.

Flexible working is pretty simple in my mind, it says:

‘I understand that the work you have to do varies from day to day and some places and times are better for some types of work that others. I trust you to decide on a daily basis where best to do your job from and at what time. All I’m interested in is you being successful in your role’.

None of this “requesting permission from a manager for a day at home” business – that’s not flexible working, that’s a day working from home for good behaviour.

The excuses I hear for why flexible working can’t be implemented verge from the silly to the ridiculous. Examples include :

  • ‘I can’t trust my staff’, which suggests to me that you’ve got the wrong staff
  • ‘My managers aren’t good enough’, which suggests you need to urgently get some management training, or new managers
  • I had one manager who said there was no visible output from some roles in his team and if he couldn’t literally see the back of their heads he wouldn’t know they had done anything. This made me think that those roles should simply be made redundant.

One sided flexibility

A lot of organisations are stuck in what I call one-sided flexibility – they’d like you to download email on your phone, to take a laptop home, be on 7 day per week call, do your emails on a Sunday evening and use your home life to do bits of work in.

But if you want to get your hair cut at 11am that’s got to be a special request. One-sided flexibility increases negative stress and presenteeism and it’s not good for employees or the bottom line.

Flexible working should put the nature of work first, not the location.

What should come first is the nature of the work to be done, so it might be that a team decides that everyone should come in on a Monday so the team can talk together and share ideas . It should be work led not doctrine led. That’s different from saying we can’t have a team meeting on a Monday because Jerry doesn’t come in on Mondays.

What can companies do if that Holy Grail of flexibility doesn’t work?

What would you do if you had people in the office who weren’t delivering results? People always worry about this – but it is not a flexible working question. If you’ve got a salesperson who stops selling, then they either have to be quickly retrained or they’ll have to quickly leave. If you’ve a customer services person who stops making their customers happy then again they need to be quickly helped or they need to leave. It doesn’t matter where they’re working from – those things don’t change.

What will happen to those companies who insist on sticking to a rigid working environment?

They will end up with the lowest quality of staff who can’t get a job elsewhere and the staff that they do have there will perform poorly. Ultimately those businesses will either fail or underperform against the potential that they could achieve.

The future for organisations is teams of really great people who are closely connected to the mission of the organisation and understand what it is trying to achieve and are coupled in teams of people who will be fluid across the year.

They’ll be connected through technology and sometimes through meetings – you can’t beat face to face for some things, for perhaps a good debate or idea generation or for just getting together with people.

What does the workplace of the future look like?

We created offices because we had to put the machines somewhere. A hundred years ago it was the ledger and then it became typewriters and computers – the machinery was in the office, so you had to go there.

Now, the machinery is in our rucksack or a bag or a pocket, so the need to come to the office is instead for meeting a client, your colleagues, meeting your boss, a brainstorming session, coming because they just want to hang out. We’ve got some staff at Reward Gateway who come to the office every day because they love it. Flexible working for at least 15 to 20% of our staff is the office every day; it’s their decision and it’s based around the work that they’re doing.

We’ve a designer who was London-based and in the office every day – his wife wanted to move back to Portugal where she was a nurse and he asked how we felt about him working from Portugal. His boss said, ‘Let’s give it a go and find out’. Since he moved to Portugal, he got promoted to a team leader and he’s one of the most popular team leaders we have. He’s rarely physically in the same place as his team but he’s a great leader and that’s more important than where he sits.

This article is adapted from an interview I did for the recruitment consultancy Propel for their Digital Nation Viewpoints series.

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