The flexibility stampede

Canadian not-for-profit WORKshift is dedicated to promoting, educating and accelerating the adoption of flexible work programmes across the country. It provides a road map and tools for organisations to achieve business agility. Created in Calgary, the body also works in Halifax, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto. Heather Greig-Smith talks to executive director Robyn Bews.

13974748579_8434869ca8_o (1)Recent research by WORKshift showed that the ability to work remotely or flexibly is a factor for connecting Canadian talent to their workplace. Working flexibly can, it said, move employees from low engagement to more positive connections. As well as the lines between personal and work time being blurred, the research found that workers aren’t always at their best during traditional working hours. Employers can achieve more by allowing them to work at their most productive times.

Why was WORKshift launched?

Calgary Economic Development started WORKshift in 2012. At the time Calgary was growing exponentially as the oil and gas heart of Canada. The objective was to accelerate the dialogue about integrating flexibility and remote work practices in Calgary businesses. It was sponsored by Transport Canada, promoting sustainable modes of transportation.

We spent a lot of time building awareness and dispelling myths around what was still called teleworking, promoting the benefits associated with flexible working not just for employees but for the organisation and our community. We built a brand that garnered a lot of interest and have built on replicating that model in five major cities across Canada – and we are looking to extend that further.

How can a city benefit from flexible working?

Any major city is facing transportation challenges right now. They are also starting to compete to attract talent and putting meaningful resources behind the message of being business friendly. If you build bigger and better roads people drive more. What we want to start doing is address the issue of what would it look like if we eliminated unnecessary commutes.

It’s not about sending people home at the same time every day or working from home, it’s about ‘do we have the culture and technology in our organisations to work where we are most effective?’

We don’t want everybody to commute at the exact same time every day. It could mean working from a location closer to your home, eliminating one commute, or cutting back on movement around the city and conducting meetings from one office. It gets to the heart of how people are working now. Do you have to have all these interactions face to face?

When has flexibility proved its worth?

The time we had a pandemic scare. There is no more effective way to avoid the spread of disease than to avoid congregating. In Calgary we also had a significant flood that shut down downtown for a period of time. Organisations that had been practising this were able to keep their lights on and continue to serve their clients.

How have you persuaded organisations to change their ways of working?

The trick for us was in getting over the old mythology: ‘we tried teleworking and it didn’t work’. Unfortunately, they tried when the technology wasn’t sufficient. We needed to reintroduce the message in a business friendly way. People are already doing work from home in evenings and weekends – what if they could work from home on Tuesday? During a snow storm they can stay home and continue to be productive.

How does this affect different business departments?

This used to be an HR issue but what we’re seeing now is a huge uptick in real estate and facilities managers driving this. It’s about real estate optimisation. What real estate can do that HR could never do is build a really robust business case. In a typical office 50% of the desks are empty at any given time. We’re trying to show organisations that trifecta between HR, real estate and IT and how they can be brought together to have conversations. It’s a transformational way of thinking because these three have never spoken to each other before.

What are your plans for the future?

Because we have a supporting role, it’s been difficult to measure the impact. We help the organisation develop a plan and begin to roll it out then they continue.

We’re doing something now that is a game changer: building a certification programme to do for the workforce what LEED certification [Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] did for buildings. People want to know where they can work flexibly but it’s still a bit of a mystery. What we want to do is give Canadian organisations the opportunity to celebrate their successes and be able to certify themselves as being WORKshift-friendly.

This programme will be a huge differentiator and will help to smoke out the imposters. Everyone says they do flexible working but when you go into companies you realise it means different things for different organisations, just like green buildings did 20 years ago.

How will certification work?

We have built a playbook to show the elements an organisation would need to consider as it develops its programme. If you achieve a check mark in each aspect you would pass the audit.

Companies that do this really well get excited about it and want to brand their programmes, which is great for the organisation, but as an external person you don’t really know what it means. This will change that.

Are there any other trends you are seeing?

A huge percentage of the organisations I’m getting requests from are public sector – government organisations, universities, any organisation that needs to do more with less. They are operating on fixed or declining budgets, some of them are tragically antiquated in their technologies and physical space and very aware that they need to transform the look and feel of the organisation to attract and keep talent. They need to be an employer of choice.

Robyn Bews

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