Organisations need to find their own flexible working balance to maintain competitive advantage, says Heather Greig-Smith
Patience is a virtue and one that is certainly needed when it comes to the spread of flexible working. Only in recent years has the technology been sophisticated enough to truly allow the many different ways we want to work: at home, in the office, with a client, up a mountain, in Starbucks.
Most of the research currently being published in the UK and beyond (and there is a lot of it) suggests that, yes, management and HR are on board with flexible working. Most managers are working flexibly themselves – possibly because they have to be online and in touch to keep on top of mounting workloads, but never mind, they’re doing it.
If they can see how useful and productive it can be then it makes sense that they are happy to spread the benefits.
And yet. Most of the research also has a ‘but’.
As yesterday’s RSA and Vodafone Flex Factor report says: “We are witnesses to an unfolding revolution in communications technology that has massively extended our professional capabilities… yet most of us work in rhythms that would be familiar to our parents and grandparents.
“We commute on crowded trains, buses and cars, work in an office all day alongside the same colleagues and return home in the evening: to socialise, spend time with the family or just collapse in front of the TV.”
Frankly, this is not a surprise. Flexible working is more than a tablet or a wireless internet connection and remote log in. It is more than seeking and securing agreement to compress your hours or share them with a colleague. It is a culture change and that takes time.
When you get past the practicalities, flexible working has to deal with prejudice – gender roles; trust issues; parents v non-parents; the manager unsure of how to manage a remote team; lack of trust between colleagues; fear; guilt. It’s heady stuff.
Before we despair, there is plenty of innovation and creativity when it comes to flexible working. As Flex Factor shows, small businesses and the voluntary sector often lead the field because it allows them to steal a march on competitors when they can’t beat them on salary.
In the report, one voluntary sector survey respondent said: “Flexible working allows us to keep the best people. It makes people feel valued. As a charity we can’t pay top rates but our flexibility is a benefit to offset this. It enables us to stay functioning in extremis.”
As flexibility becomes more of a tool for competitive advantage then those left behind will be forced to consider the cost. Flex Factor claims allowing people to work the way they want to would mean £8.1bn extra for the economy in productivity increases and cost savings.
Balance is everything
Yet what is important to remember (and is often missing when flexibility advocates and those in entrenched opposition slug it out) is that it’s all about balance. This is something the RSA’s report hits right on the head:
“Beyond a certain point, depending on the organisation and its sector, almost any flexible working practice can start to become counterproductive. That tipping point is likely to be organisation or context-specific.”
It is almost impossible to successfully argue for unlimited flexibility, because the world is not that easy. There are clients, customers and colleagues to think of; there are individual business needs. If you run a laboratory or a coal mine then your employees probably can’t take work home (though you could change their shift patterns to suit their lives). What works for one business will not work for another.
As Flex Factor concludes: “Whether flexible working becomes a net benefit or cost depends to a large extent on whether it is applied within a progressive culture of trust and collective commitment, or whether it operates as part of a more reactive, command and control culture in which employees are forced to subvert and resist the rules to get the best deal for themselves.”
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Start small, give your employees a little more trust and flexibility than they have now, and see what happens.