Flexible working: the management challenge

The Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) needed to practice what it preaches and further embed flexible working in the organisation. Head of research and policy David Pardey explains the benefits and challenges.

2968327905_8ac71d7072_oILM grew interested in the issue of flexible working as a result of research we did into the differences between men’s and women’s management careers. The research Ambition and gender at work led us to explore flexible working in more detail last year. Flexible working: Goodbye nine to five showed clearly that men as well as women valued (and were using) flexible working, and that the availability of flexible working created a much more committed workforce and enabled both the employee and the employer to benefit. This led us to make a clear commitment to the idea of flexible working as a principle, to encourage employers to look at how they could benefit, and managers to develop the skills needed to manage flexible workers.

Which prompted people to ask us how readily we allowed people to work flexibly? At the time about a third of our staff worked from home and a handful worked reduced or compressed hours. We also operate across two offices (in London and Lichfield) which means that, as a business, we are used to using technology to support internal communications, such as teleconferencing, Skype, Facetime and Lync. Now, a year later, we have progressed further forward, as we prepare to move to a new, smaller office in London, with more of our London-based staff being encouraged to become home-based. The office will have one third fewer workstations, all of which will be hot desks, but with extra small meeting spaces.

Mutual benefits

Why are we so supportive of flexible working? Apart from the savings on infrastructure, we believe that the benefits to employees of being home-based, and being able to ask to work fractional contracts or compressed hours, makes us attractive as an employer and enables people to work to fit their jobs’ requirements rather than making jobs fit a conventional pattern. The most misunderstood thing about flexible working is that it is a benefit for employees and a problem for employers. In our view, and this has shaped our approach, flexible working offers significant benefits to employers as well as employees.

That doesn’t mean it is all plain sailing. Employees have to learn to work differently, and to make the most of technology. Face to face meetings can be harder to organise, but when they do happen, they have to be justified – why can’t we do this by telecon instead? Because some of the informal opportunities to meet are lost, some more formal meetings might be needed – teams now have weekly or even daily briefings, to let each other know what they are all doing. These are largely done by phone, Skype or Facetime, are fairly short and sharp, and encourage a focus on what is really important for everyone to know. The result is better communication – with a dispersed workforce, it is important to let people know what is happening, rather than assuming people will know because they all work together.

Output-based measurement

The other big challenge is focusing more on outputs and less on inputs – it’s not what people are doing that matters but what comes out from it. For managers, not being able to see people working means that you must agree what it is people are expected to deliver, and when. The net result is better productivity, because people are working to clearer deadlines and deliverables. The improvement in accountability and greater clarity about expectations is supported by heightened levels of trust. Managers have to trust their direct reports to deliver against agreed targets, without being able to constantly look over their shoulder. Ultimately, without trust (tempered by appropriate but not excessive monitoring), it would be impossible for us to work the way we do.

DP pic

Main image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/enda/

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Categories: Comment, Implementation

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