Pre-COVID we were on the cusp of great change in how we work. Demand for flexible working was already huge. It’s always been the smart move, helping improve business performance and resilience, ensuring employees feel valued and motivated. Now 13 million people across the UK say they do not want to go back to working as they did before. Work is going to look different for all of us.
UNDERSTANDING THE ISSUES
What is flexible working?
A flexible job is quite simply not Monday-Friday, 9-5, on your premises. It aligns with the needs of your business, and also with the needs and preferences of your employees. But when, where and how long may be varied. The arrangement may be formal (ie contractual), informal, or a blend of the two.
The essential rule is that, whatever it looks like, it has to work for the organisation, for the role, and for the employee. That’s why even across the same organisation or team, you can expect to see many different forms of flexible working.
It’s basically common sense.
With one caveat: HOW MUCH work has to be right. All the flexible working in the world cannot compensate for a role that is badly designed, overloaded, or with unclear objectives. That is a recipe for disengagement, cynicism and poor performance.
Good for people
Nine in ten full-time workers want to work flexibly. And 13 million people say they do not want to go back to how they worked before the first lockdown. Lockdown has taught us the importance of human contact at work, and the value of having quiet time at home to focus; as well as the joy of time at home for the family, unpressured by a commute.
People value choice and control around how they deliver their work, whether on the factory floor or in the corner office. These are the essential elements that make flexible working such a successful tool, at every stage of the employee lifecycle.
- Starting out: younger workers value the ability to flex and balance more highly than the pay on offer
- Family life: to enable parents to combine childcare, the school day, school holidays with work
- Caring for others: there are 5 million working carers in the UK, around 1 in 5 of the workforce.
- Wider horizons: time for life beyond work, at every stage; and for reconsidering priorities and balance in the transition to retirement
Good for organisations
More than 30 years of employer experience of making flexibility work in the workplace, and reams of academic research, demonstrate consistent benefits.
From recruiting and retaining the best talent, to the two-way flexibility that supports business agility (as proved during lockdown), flexible working is an essential, business-critical tool. It’s the key to sustainable wellbeing and to increased diversity. It is a necessary part of strategies to tackle the gender pay gap. It’s a “must-have”, valued above salary, for Millennials and Gen Y.
The evidence shows that meaningful choice and control around when and where you work, translates into performance gains for your employer.
So what’s the problem? Why isn’t flex, just the way we all work?
For over 40 years, employers have been trying to “fix the women”. Flexible working is partly rooted in the now dated 20th Century presumption of part-time work for mothers. That legacy runs deep, and combines with equally deeply held societal assumptions that mothers will put their feet on the career brakes to care for the children, and fathers will concentrate on being the breadwinners. The result is well-intentioned programmes that never quite deliver the equality women strive for, because they are all predicated on the assumption that only women – not men – want and need flexibility. Men then follow this narrative. They choose not to work like women and keep any flex they have under the radar.
“How much” is hard to solve
Most roles are still designed to fit a notional ’ideal worker’ – a man, working full time and ready for overtime, with someone at home enabling him to give his full attention to work. Long hours are endemic in the UK, and work-related stress is the leading cause of days lost to sickness every year. Work-home boundaries are blurred. Work intensification continues to demand more, and more, of our time. Covid-related losses and financial challenges make it hard to consider reducing workloads and responsibility spans.
And it’s always easier not to change, however much evidence we have that change is necessary and will be positive.
So what do we do?
There are practical, easily achievable, things you can do to improve flexibility.
In teams that make a success of flexibility, the manager steps back from the detail of how, when and where the work is done, to concentrate on what is done, by when and to what standard.
So that’s the practical starting point. Stand back. Let the people you pay to do the work, do the work.
For the team, define clearly what is expected collectively – opening hours, client response times, on-site presence. What must be done.
Delegate to the team the responsibility for agreeing a shared protocol, that will shape how they use flexible working to deliver their shared and individual responsibilities.
Choice and control = engagement and performance.
Hybrid and flex
Everyone is talking about hybrid working. It both is – and is not – flexible working.
It offers – and normalises – one kind of flex: the ability to work some of the time offsite, generally from home.
But it restricts options to where only. It doesn’t offer wider choice or control over when and how long someone might work.
I am sceptical that hybrid alone will deliver much for organisations, but hopeful that it will open the door to new thinking about real flexibility.
More about Hybrid working