Growing numbers of employees want to work more flexibly in order to achieve a better balance between their jobs and the rest of their lives. But while growing numbers of organisations are trying to accommodate their employees’ requests, they are doing it not out of altruism but for good business reasons. Benefits range from increased motivation, productivity and retention, to better customer service and considerable reductions in both costs and CO2.
However, many employers still resist the strong business case for flexible working. They fear that staff working from home will shirk, and that customers will lose faith if they can’t talk to whom they want exactly when and where they want. Some employers believe that a desire to work flexibly implies a lack of commitment, that it is primarily a benefit for working mothers and that it will breed resentment among those who don’t work flexibly.
But these very attitudes represent the biggest obstacle to flexible working. Other key elements include winning the buy-in of line managers by showing them how it can benefit the team, the customer and the business; communicating flexible working as a benefit for everyone, not just women; having strong policies and practices; learning to trust employees; and, crucially, monitoring output, not input.
In companies such as DSGI, BT, Lloyds TSB and First Direct, which have been strong pioneers of flexible working, flexibility for front-line staff and management levels are managed quite differently. The firms provide an array of different flexible working options, including term-time or school hours working, evening or night working, compressed hours, home working and rolling shifts, and attempt to accommodate the needs of front-line staff as far as possible by scheduling them in against the requirements of the business on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.
However, when it comes to back office and central support functions, where people work in smaller teams, flexibility is managed more informally. Melissa Godfray, senior manager, equality and diversity at Lloyds TSB, says that good line management, reinforced by training – along with a big dose of common sense – are crucial.
“In our team, for example, we have a weekly location planner so that everyone – both internally and externally – knows where everyone else is and when they are available, even if it is on the phone or by email. And you should avoid scheduling meetings at 7.30 in the morning if some of the team can’t make it,” she says.
Indeed, some of the most senior and demanding jobs are being done on a flexible basis. Godfray says: “Our head of expatriate banking flies the world all the time, but works a compressed fortnight so that he can spend sensible chunks of time with his family when he’s in the UK.”
Likewise, Caroline Waters, director, people and policy at BT Group, works from home one or two days a week, another BT senior executive works a compressed week and yet another works entirely from home. “We have examples at every level,” says Waters.
But managing flexible working successfully, particularly at management level and above, is also a matter of give and take, points out Godfray. “Staff might need to switch their day off from a Friday to a Monday, for example, to accommodate an important meeting, or be prepared to take an urgent call when they are at home.”
They might also need to be flexible if, for some reason, their request for a given pattern of working is turned down. “But we encourage line managers not just to turn down a request outright, but to explore more workable alternatives. Giving individuals time to mull over a compromise solution is also important, because these things can be very emotive,” says Godfray.
In these leading companies, flexible working is communicated as a benefit for all staff, not just working mothers, and take-up is the same among both men and women. “Communicating successful flexible working is enormously important too, and we take every opportunity to showcase the people – men and women at all levels – who do it,” says Godfray.
Working more flexibly doesn’t mean working less hard; it often means just the opposite. BT’s research shows that the average productivity of an individual working from home is 20% higher than when they are in the office. The growth of homeworking at BT delivers an additional £8m onto the bottom line every year. And the savings don’t stop there.
Waters explains: “Since 2000 we have taken £500m off our real estate costs. Our return rate after maternity leave is 99% compared to the UK average of 40%, which saves us between £4m and £5m in recruitment costs. Overall, our staff turnover is 3% in an industry where 17-18% is the norm." People also travel less. "In one year alone we used 12m litres less fuel, saving £10m and 54,000 tonnes of CO2.”
Flexible working is good for business, but for most organisations it requires a shift in mindset and culture.
Clive Sexton is an interim management jobs professional. This article was previously published in the Business Review and OnRec