Flexible working. There, I’ve said it. Two words that are designed to make business managers shake and quake with concern. Say it and watch what happens. You’ll see a bumble and slur of all the reasons why it won’t work in their organization. What is it they are so afraid of?
UK based forum EWF* (Employers group on Workplace Flexibility) found in their 2012 study that there were 12 tangible benefits of flexible working;
Six of these benefits address the changing business context:
- increased employee productivity
- effective virtual teams
- business continuity
- reduced business travel
- agile infrastructure
The remaining six address the changing employee context:
- increased engagement
- greater retention
- more senior women
- the attraction and retention of senior executives
- flexible retirement
- generational working styles
Their study found that “In responding to the changing context of work, companies that endorse flexible working can remain competitive by leveraging emerging opportunities… In the context of an increasingly sophisticated business environment, we see flexibility as essential to the future viability of both large and small organisations. Flexibility allows companies to confront complexity by providing a diverse offer to employees.”
From my own experiences of providing support to women in the workplace I am convinced that flexible working patterns are imperative to achieving gender equality in the workplace. I have seen too many women take roles that under-employ their talents purely for the benefit of flexible hours. I’ve seen companies lose out on hiring great female employees just because they couldn’t adjust their thinking or culture to provide more flexible schedules.
Flexible working doesn’t just support gender equality by allowing women more flexible schedules it supports by allowing men the same flexibility. If both genders work flexibly this creates the concept that flexible working is ‘ok’, it removes the social stigma around it.
UK Research by Opinion Matters in 2015 found that 40% of men opt out of taking time off for childcare. Over half of the 1,072 working fathers surveyed wanted to reduce their hours and spend more time with their children, but more than a quarter said that their employer had never offered them a flexi-time or part-time contract. Those who do go part-time worry that it will damage their career prospects and finances. 70% said they felt there was a social stigma attached to it, while a quarter thought it could damage their career in the future.
We know the benefits, both genders want it, so what is stopping flexible working becoming a reality?
The EWF state 4 main barriers in their research:
- A Lack of Senior Sponsorship
- A Culture of Presenteeism
- A Lack of Guidance and Support
- A Risk-Averse Culture
From my own experience of 16 years in corporate Human Resources I agree that it’s a combination of these 4 things that prevent companies from offering flexible working patterns. In the last 2 years at Mumager we have run a number of ‘ramp-up’ workshops for women returning to work after maternity leave. From the delegates who told us that they asked for flexible working after having children only a small minority were accommodated and usually on an informal basis. For those that weren’t accommodated the answer given was usually “if we do this for you, we’ll have to do it for everyone and we wouldn’t be able to run the business”. A few didn’t even ask the question as they felt it would impact negatively on their careers and how they were perceived in the organization.
It’s important to add that there were delegates who had no interest in flexible working.
When the data shows that companies receive an 103.4% average return during women CEO tenures (Fortune 1000) compared to a 69.5% average return for the S&P500 Index over the same period**; and we know that making flexible work schedules the default for all levels is one of the four imperatives to increase representation of women in leadership positions***; we can put together a concrete business case to overcome the first barrier of senior sponsorship.
As for the second barrier, to me this is an example of a lack of innovation and trust on the part of the employer and also a lack of strategic business understanding. I find it personally irritating and patronizing when I hear about the response: “if we do this for you, we’ll have to do it for everyone and we wouldn’t be able to run the business”. Flexible work patterns are just that – flexible. There is no one size fits all. Here are just a few different flexible patterns I have come across:
- Part-time working (working either less hours per day or less days per week within the core working week)
- Home working
- Job shares
- Variable hours/flexitime
- Compressed hours
- Staggered start/end times
- Annualised hours
- Term-time working
We all know that being in the office is not the same as working productively. According to a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) part-time workers are more motivated than full-time employees. When asked about their attitudes to their jobs, 75% of part-time workers classified themselves as “highly or fairly motivated”, compared with 68% of full-timers. The ILM survey also found that part-time workers are more likely to have a higher respect for their manager, and a more positive attitude towards their employer (57%) than full-time staff (49%). This fits with anecdotal evidence that suggests workers who have flexible patterns are more productive than when they had traditional schedules.
As someone with a background in HR I strongly feel that the HR profession can do more to provide organisations, employers and managers with guidance on how to manage flexible work schedules. There are so many case studies, best practice guides, how-to downloads, research papers, working hours recording technology, training programmes, online training, specialist consultancies and advisors (such as Mumager), and business cases available that they can learn how to fit flexible working to their own organization. I see HR as critical in enabling the third barrier of ‘A Lack of Guidance and Support’ to be overcome.
So, that leaves us with the final hurdle of overcoming a risk-averse culture. Like any innovation, flexible working needs testing. Run pilot schemes and analyse the results. Test it out on teams that seem instantly more adaptable or culturally open to flexible schedules. Make it clear to employees that these are pilot schemes before making any major changes to established working patterns. Involve employees and managers to come up with practical solutions for any challenges that the flexible working throws up. It’s a real opportunity to engage with employees and enable them to influence company policy.
Flexible working is the way forward for organisations that want to be profitable, productive and progressive. In today’s fast moving world with all the benefits and challenges of an online society, the quicker employers grasp embrace flexible working the more likely they are to create a sustainable business model.
*The EWF comprises the following 20 companies: Addleshaw Goddard, B&Q, BP, Brunswick Group, BT, Bupa, CISCO, Citi, Ernst & Young, Eversheds, Ford, ITV, John Lewis, KPMG, Lloyds Banking Group, McKinsey, MITIE, MTM Products, Norman Broadbent, Tesco. They reflect a broad range of sectors and include a number of small, medium and large employers. Between them, they employ over half a million people across the UK and as such are a microcosm of UK plc.
** Source: Fortune, July 2014
***Source: CEB Corporate Leadership Council™, November 2014