These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Leadership Think Tank held on Thursday 16th July 2015, hosted by PwC’s Eli Burns and Nigel Hutchinson titled ‘Creating the Business Case for Flexible Working’.
The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.
Flexible working (referring to both working in a diverse range of environments and differing core hours) is becoming more and more popular within businesses across a number of industries. This is due to technology enabling improved access to work utilities, the changing demographic of the workforce, the changing nature of the work environment and the impacts of globalisation, the opinions of employees on work life balance, the businesses’ desire for competitive advantage and the emphasis many companies are putting on employer brand – it is a complex issue. Although the benefits of flexible working for employees are clear, some businesses are less sure on the commercial impact it has. As well as this, one of the core problems is that businesses realise it is extremely hard to gain consistency across a company which has a range of roles; some being far more customer facing than others. What can be done to ensure policies incorporate differing needs whilst avoid being considered unfair? Also once policies are in place; how does this translate to practice and what factors influence this?
Business Drivers – why do companies need to get it right?
Flexible working is now not only for companies at the cutting edge of People Plans but following the legislation change in June 2014, it is a necessity for all organisations to consider their approach. To explore the best practice discussed during our Think Tank it first makes sense to uncover some common challenges faced…
Getting buy-in from the business. The very fact this Think Tank is entitled ‘Creating the business case for flexible working’ demonstrates some of the issues encountered when flexible working is presented to the business. It can often be dismissed as a ‘fluffy HR initiative’ or excuses are regularly made as to why it works in lots of environments but isn’t suited to that particular one.
- Presenteeism/Trust – This is a constant barrier to flexible working and the embedding of it. Many Managers still believe you have to be seen in order to be working. There is a need to look at productivity and outcomes here rather than hours input at the office. This links to managers being good managers – it is very easy to manage somebody who is sitting at the desk next to you but a whole new ball game to effectively manage someone remotely.
- Team pressure – In a team environment it can be questioned how a team can collaborate effectively if they are not in the same geographical location. Employees often do not want to be the first one to speak out and suggest flexible working as they don’t want to let the team down, even though it is highly likely the remainder of the team are thinking the same thing.
- Time – It can take time for an individual working flexibly to understand themselves and how they operate most effectively. There can be a short lag-time between the start of flexible working and the increased effectiveness and commercial productivity of an individual.
- Global Businesses – If you work in a Global environment you could be contacted anytime during a 24 hour period. Becoming more globally connected inherently means we need to become more flexible. The issues arise when employers expect a ‘contactable culture’ and are more than happy to take the flex but aren’t willing to offer the same in return.
- ‘Legitimate’ Vs ‘Illegitimate Requests – There is a widely-held perception that having family commitments, especially young children, constitutes as a ‘legitimate’ request for flexible working whereas going to the gym or playing in an orchestra is not. There is a real need to remove the subjectivity and bias out of the decision making process.
- Type of role/organisation – Resources can be more limited and stretched in a smaller organisation making company owners more nervous to uptake flexible working. Client-facing roles and billable hours can also create pressure as can customer-facing companies where there is a constant skill requirement to meet the customer demands also raises concerns.
There may not be a ‘silver bullet’ to the flexible working debate but there are certainly steps which can be taken to smooth any bumps in the road on the journey to having a fully-integrated, fully-functioning and fully-accepted flexible working approach.
- Address the labels – The terms ‘going to work’ and then ‘working from home’ create their own perceptions around location; instead look to embrace ‘agile working’. Work is an activity rather than a place and therefore wherever that individual needs to be to make them the most productive and effective in their work should be viewed as a big plus.
- Strong Managers/Role Models – a culture is highly affected by the attitudes at the top so leading by example is key when fostering a flexible working culture. This instills confidence to the wider population of employees to make the request and capitalise on it. Even in client-facing roles it is often the case the client believes the employees are already working flexibly! Opening up the comms channels and removing negative perceptions is essential.
- Manage for Outcomes – Rethinking success of an employee through results and output as opposed to the hours they put in can be highly beneficial and actually make performance management a far smoother process.
- Job Sharing – Considering a job share can open a huge number of doors and essentially means you get the benefit of two brains for one headcount and can employ individuals who together tick every box in terms of skill set for a role, making for a richer outcome.
- Flexible Hiring – The times are revolutionising to change the default of recruitment to see a role as suitable for flexible working from the word go, as opposed to having to ‘earn the right’. Flipping the norm to ‘yes’ helps foster and embed this culture.
- Remove the bias – A healthy, happy, balanced workforce is a productive, commercially strong one. Editing the bias out of reasonable Vs unreasonable requests means every employee is empowered to have a balance and do what they feel is important in their life outside of work too, regardless of the Manager’s views on this activity.
- Share failures – As with anything , there may be one or two people where flexible working doesn’t have positive results. Often Managers can be tempted to put a block on it for the entire team however sharing failures can be liberating for all within an organisation. The number who will exploit it is minimal and so sharing the examples where it didn’t fly demonstrates just how high the numbers are for those it did.
It was discussed whether ‘commercial evidence’ is the same as a ‘business case’. There may not always be tangible figures which will immediately boom following the implementation of flexible working however the benefits are not only noticeable but more times than not, measurable.
- Attraction – Flexible working is high on the agenda of potential talent, especially within the Millennial generation. Embracing flexible working furthers your Employer Brand and means your organisation has a very real chance of attracting top calibre talent at all levels.
- Retention – Flexible working is becoming far more of an expectation than a ‘nice to have’. When embedded it is shown to increase engagement of employees and therefore reduce turnover which inevitably saves on recruitment cost and the lag-time it takes for a new employee to get up to speed.
- Wellbeing – Employees who are empowered to manage their workload and make time for the things they enjoy doing outside work not only are more motivated to work but have been shown to be more effective when they are working.
There is an element of risk when an organisation moves to flexible working however the commercial results along with attraction, engagement and retention of top talent, means it absolutely should be a hot topic on the agenda.