Flexible working – what’s getting in the way?

The CIPD’s Flex From 1st campaign[1] highlights that, ‘While COVID-19 has driven an increase in remote working, 46% of UK employees still do not have flexible working’. Despite the CIPD and others talking about the benefits of flexible working in terms of employee retention, engagement and productivity, many organisations still seem lukewarm about the prospect of giving employees more control over their working lives in the long term.

So, with so much to gain, what’s getting in the way of companies embracing flexibility more wholeheartedly?

We are stuck in a ‘days per week’ mindset

Companies and even governments around the world[2] are contemplating the four-day workweek in a move to rethink working patterns. But in a thought-provoking blog on LinkedIn,[3] leadership and management consultant, Elizabeth Shassere, suggests that we need to make huge shifts in the way organisations think about their future workforce as we’re still looking at work through a ‘150 year old lens’. She argues that we need to get outside of the 9–5 box and start thinking about paying for value rather than time input. Organisations need to be brave and move away from dictating where, or for how long, work takes place unless that is an essential element of the job.

Illustration of three clocks

We don’t talk about good flexible working openly

In many organisations, people are doing flexible working ‘under cover’ (when not related to COVID-19 working arrangements). These are the informal arrangements that are working really well but no one talks about them, 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.

There is a lack of trust between employer and employee

The popularity of surveillance software[4] since the start of COVID-19 rising up alongside employees being asked to work from home where possible, shows a level of mistrust. While some industries may require it by law, like in the financial sector or jobs that handle client data, issues about privacy and necessity are bound to arise when implementing this type of software for your workforce. Software that tracks how long employees’ internet sessions are, or that logs keystroke data or monitors staff through their webcams can be a type of virtual micromanagement, adding further stress to employees and increasing presenteeism[5]. As stated above, instead of focusing on ‘time spent’, managers need to think about focusing on the output and value their employees provide, and to build trust by having open and continuous communication that specifies those expectations.

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 its 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 states: ‘Part-time doesn’t mean part-talented, part-ambitious, part-driven…’ [6] We need to start being proud about part-time and celebrate the achievements of highly talented people who can make a valuable contribution to the business (who also want to organise their work and life more flexibly).

It doesn’t need to be difficult

Another fear is that introducing flexible working will add to administration overheads. 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 line managers can easily approve 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 see 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 recognise in your business? What small steps could you take to make flexibility a reality?

[1] https://www.cipd.co.uk/news-views/campaigns/flex-from-first

[2] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-02/four-day-work-week-gains-popularity-around-the-world

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/flexible-working-why-i-wont-even-entertain-idea-4-day-shassere/

[4] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/work-from-home-surveillance-software

[5] https://workplaceinsight.net/working-from-home-surveillance-drives-rise-of-digital-presenteeism/

[6] https://twitter.com/mother_pukka/status/1097494059550236672

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