‘Let’s nail down flexible working’

Andy Lake, author of the Smart Working Handbook, explains how businesses can avoid being inflexible about flexible working.


One of the strange things about the growth of flexible working is that a lot of it isn’t very flexible at all. Having fixed hours in part-time working, the fixed pattern of a compressed working week, the predetermined days of the school holidays in term-time working, or specified regular working-from-home days – none of these are particularly flexible patterns of work, are they?

What they usually are is an exception from a default traditional way of working fixed hours in a regular place. Arguably the employer is getting a little flexible around the edges in allowing some people to work differently. But what often strikes me in implementations of flexible working is how often people – whether bosses, HR folk or the employees themselves – want to nail flexibility to a rigid framework.

The flexible working regulations in the UK and other countries tend to do this too. One requests a particular pattern of work, and then if granted that becomes the pattern for the whole role. Organisational policies for flexible working and work-life balance often mirror the statutory process, and add additional provisions about line manager approval and the circumstances in which it might all end horribly and normal practices be resumed.

Cramming roles into pigeon-holes

As organisations move on towards more regular rather than exceptional forms of flexibility in ‘agile’ or ‘smart’ working, there is a fashion to slot everyone into a role profile. Usually this boils down to three or four role profiles, but I have seen as many as 17. Though that didn’t last long. The profiles have names such as fixed, flexible, mobile, homeworker, super-mobile, flexible-in-office, flexible-beyond-office (etc).

I can understand the attraction of doing this. It is a good idea to analyse the types of work that people do in order to see how else, where else, when else it might be done. And probably also by whom or what else while one is at it.

Role pigeon-holing is also attractive to some people in facilities and IT who want to use role profiles as a way to plan generic provision of space or IT. So a fixed worker gets a whole desk, a flexible worker 0.5 of a desk, a mobile worker 0.1 of desk, and the super-mobile worker a few shared bean bags or a bar stool. Or something like that.

At root, this kind of process is all about nailing down flexible working to a rigid framework and to familiar ways of working. The result is that both workspace and the office culture remain biased towards traditional, desk-based ways of working. Two different cultures emerge – one for the fixed workers, which still seems like the norm, and one for the flexible and mobile workers, who buzz around the margins using new space and new tools but who have to work in the fixed old ways when interacting with the office and the people working on a “fixed” basis.

This kind of role pigeon-holing rarely reflects the real potential for flexibility and the business benefits that could be derived from it.

Three ways to support flexible flexibility

Here are three ways to avoid the inflexible flexibility approach:

  1. Start from the principle of ‘flexibility as normal’ – make flexibility the default way of working. This includes working virtually as well. Let virtual face-to-face become as much a part of normal working as physical face-to-face, using the new collaboration technologies.
  2. Work out the flexible options not for different job roles, for but for the activities carried out by your team. Trying to create generic profiles for whole roles is a Procrustean exercise that doesn’t realistically address the tasks people actually do.
  3. Develop the culture of trust and management by results that allows teams to work out where and when is most appropriate to do the work.

With this more organic and fluid approach, everyone becomes a flexible worker. They work within the same smart working culture and interact with their colleagues, wherever and whenever they are working, using the most appropriate online and offline mechanisms for the kinds of activities involved.

With no artificial barriers to working flexibly, it is much easier for both the organisation and the individual to adjust the time and place of work, and dovetail the needs of the business with the changing needs of the individual. This is a far more effective way of delivering flexibility than changing an individual’s whole pattern of working on a permanent basis.

In sum, it’s about being smart rather than bureaucratic about flexibility.


Andy Lake is the author of the Smart Working Handbook, the 2nd edition of which was published in September, and of the new Smart Working Code of Practice from the British Standards Institute (PAS 3000).

Main image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jiscinfonet/


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