Flexible working – what’s getting in the way?

The thorny subject of flexible working was high on the agenda at the CIPD’s Festival of Work last week, with new research showing 60 per cent of staff felt long working hours were having a negative effect on their health and well-being.

CIPD CEO Peter Cheese threw the gauntlet down to employers, calling on them to offer their people a wide range of flexible working arrangements and to actively promote take-up.

It’s an issue that industry has long been struggling to get to grips with. Despite evidence suggesting that flexible working could boost the UK economy by £148 billion over the next 10 years, many organisations still appear to be lukewarm about the prospect of giving employees more control over their working lives.

So with so much to gain (increased productivity, a more agile workforce, better employee engagement) what’s getting in the way of companies embracing flexibility more whole-heartedly?

We are stuck in a ‘days per week’ mindset

In a thought-provoking blog on LinkedIn, Elizabeth Shassere suggests that despite potentially huge shifts in the way organisations will need to go about their future business, we are still looking at work through a 150-year-old lens. The current campaign for a four -day week, says the author of ‘Becoming a Fearless Leader’, is missing the point. We need to get outside of the 9-5 box and start thinking about paying for value rather than input. Organisations need to be brave and move away from dictating where or for how long works takes place, unless that is an essential element of the job.

We don’t talk about good flexible working openly

In many organisations, there are people doing flexible working ‘under cover’. These are the informal arrangements which are working really well, but no-one talks about because they think it will be frowned on from on high, or because the business is worried it will open the floodgates. These arrangements spring up because a forward-thinking manager doesn’t want to lose a valuable member of staff, but knows if they try and make it ‘official’, barriers will be put in the way. We need to celebrate flexible working successes – rather than shoving them under the carpet.

Line managers don’t always get it

Often, an organisation’s ambition to embrace flexibility is sabotaged by managers on the front line, who don’t understand the business benefits and lack the skills to manage a more agile workforce. There is still a limited understanding of the vast array of flexible working options and a fear that if you give people their head, you will lose control. “It’s a great idea in principle, but it wouldn’t work in our team,” is a common objection. If organisations want to reap the benefits of flexible working, they need to ensure managers are fully bought into the concept and have the confidence and skills to implement it effectively.

We don’t value part-time working

How often do you hear the phrase: “He/she only works part-time?” There are some great examples of very senior people managing their role on a part-time basis, but the view that if the jacket isn’t permanently on the back of the chair, the person can’t be performing, still exists. As Anna Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka said: “Part-time doesn’t mean part-talented, part-ambitious, part-driven.” We need to start getting proud about part-time and celebrate the achievements of highly talented people who can make a valuable contribution to the business, but just want to organize their work and life in a more flexible way.

It doesn’t need to be difficult

Another fear is that introducing flexible working will add to the administration overhead. However, the latest breed of Cloud HR systems can automate many of the processes that may have taken up too much time in the past. For example, HR software should be able to automatically calculate entitlement to paid time off based on hours actually worked and ensure that line managers can easily approving additional hours, or check resourcing coverage before agreeing to time off requests. Managing flexible working in a single Cloud HR system has another advantage too; other employees will know that everything is visible and above board, so are less likely to feel that their ‘flexible’ colleagues are getting a better deal than they are.

How many of these situations and attitudes do you recognize in your business? What small steps could you take to make flexibility a reality?

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