By definition, flexible means different things to different people. And that is its beauty. Once considered a compromise – often made in favour of the employee – many are now waking up to the fact that a flexible working position can actually benefit the needs of both employee and employer, as Jessica Morgan finds out
It’s been enshrined in law since 2014 that anyone can request a flexible working review. But, although that’s a positive step in the right direction, passing a law alone hasn’t been enough. A recent study by Aviva showed that over a third of people (35%) still didn’t feel comfortable even having this conversation with their company.
Having not stuck to a traditional working week for eight years, and having run my own company based on flexible working for over four, I know it’s an approach that works. Lockdown has forced many people into new, flexible working positions, often for the first time. And if that still hasn’t convinced them, it’s time to re-look at the case for flexible working, and understand that the shift to evaluating outcome, rather than process, is critical to long-term success.
The five-day week is arbitrary
Now a deeply entrenched part of our modern lives, it’s important to remember that the five-day working week is a construct.
Whereas months and years were created around natural phenomena, the seven-day week was wholly man-made. Taking two of those days off for a ‘weekend’ dates back over 100 years, to those in mills working a five day on, two day off pattern. There’s more about its origins here.
Few centuries have seen so many advances as our most recent (not least vast swathes of the population now being employed in offices rather than mills). But meanwhile, the five-day week has solidly remained the norm. Working anything less than that is still classed as ‘part-time’ and working in any kind of structure different to that, flexible.
An alien concept
According to YouGov, at least 20% of people who never work from home have been doing so recently. Historically, one of the key issues with flexible working is that those who hadn’t experienced it for themselves found it hard to believe it could work for them and their companies. More mothers have worked flexibly, for example, but fewer of these head up businesses.
With companies continuing to work and make money remotely and some of those working fewer hours, I now hope more eyes will be opened to the benefits. And it can be championed by anyone who’s experienced it and realised it can work. This could drive the change.
Whilst we’ve become very good at challenging ways of working, we haven’t been so good at tackling its historical framework.
Yes, not everyone can work flexibly
It’s hard to dispute a point that’s often levelled during flexible working discussions – that those in professions like medicine, nursing, manufacturing, and transport probably need to be in one location for the majority of their role.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that first, many of these professions have embraced shift-working, which is itself a kind of flexibility. And, second, some of their time – such as admin – is now taking place outside of the work place. This is anecdotally successful, as my paediatric doctor friend who now works from home for a portion of her job for the first time in her career, recently told me.
Meanwhile, the vast majority (around 80% according to the national archives) of us are in what would be considered to be desk-based roles. And these can absolutely be flexible.
By flexible, I mean working remotely, working ‘part-time’, working flexi-time or job-sharing – or any combination of those.
The productivity equation
I know from my own experience that the more hours spent = more productivity argument is fundamentally flawed. In fact, the opposite is usually true. This is partly due to the fact that working flexibly often leads to chunking up time or time blocking, which is a much more productive way to get things done. In fact, one commentator, Cal Newport, estimated that a 40-hour time-blocked working week produces the same amount of output as a 60-hour week without structure.
Then, there are factors like the commute to add in. How productive can you be for up to an hour (or more) each side of the day? Couldn’t this time be better spent?
I know ours is a productive business because I see the results first-hand. We achieve a lot, but in fewer hours than the traditional working week. Working to deadlines and hard stops helps. Being a service business, we sometimes have to manage this and counter an always-on culture, or explain that we can’t do a meeting at 4pm on a Friday, for example. But that’s rarely a problem.
Promoting trust and mental health
From the start, I made it clear that anyone I employed could work away from the office. Initially, that meant on occasion when needed, but now we’ve been working remotely since mid-March with no firm end date set and it’s worked, overall. On a practical level, we were cloud-based and set up for it, so there were no complicated IT arrangements.
And on an emotional level, I’ve never seen trust as a barrier to my team working remotely. I find it hard to understand why you’d employ someone you didn’t trust in the first place. Obviously, slick interview performances can be deceptive but then safeguards include references, probation periods and regular reviews. The bigger the company, the harder it may be, but there’s usually a management structure in place that can monitor things more closely and again, output is the key thing there.
In my experience, if an employer trusts you and treats you well, that’s a good basis for you giving your best. And if you’re able to flex your work with your needs outside of work, it makes for a happier overall experience. A study last year found that 39% of those who worked flexibly had benefited from better mental health, plus 43% who did not have the option felt it would help with their mental health. One of my past employees even worked on a published piece about this.
A better talent pool
Something else relatively unprecedented has happened during lockdown. Companies have employed people they’ve never met in person, let alone shaken the hand of. Employees have been recruited, on-boarded and assessed fully over video.
I’ve never recruited this way, but, by offering flexible positions I have been able to tap into talent for a certain amount of time, in a way that’s been cost-effective and right for the business and employee.
If you open up your mind to recruiting and working in a different way, imagine the talent pool you’re also opening up. The best person for the job might only have three days to offer you and could possibly be based abroad – but imagine if neither of those were barriers.
And how about staff retention? Given that it costs thousands to hire a new employee – quite a few thousand if they’re senior – think of the cost savings of providing a job that works for every aspect of an employee’s life, and is prepared to flex around changes in their circumstances. According to the CIPD, higher levels of engagement, experienced by working flexibly, can reduce staff turnover by as much as 87%.
It’s flexible for a reason
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all working arrangement, and that’s the point. We’ve been doggedly following a universal restraining structure for too long, but that shouldn’t now be replaced by a standardised flex approach that doesn’t take into account different circumstances.
While I’ve welcomed the chance for my family to work from home that lockdown’s afforded, some people have hated not having an office hub to come into every day. Some people like having set hours and 9 – 5 works well for them.
So, it’s a discussion that should be had, based on business requirements balanced with employee’s needs and desires. I see no problem with having different arrangements with different employees, provided it works for you as well as them. Remember that stat above, that 35% of people don’t feel comfortable enough to have a flexible working conversation. Something clearly isn’t right at the moment and businesses are blocking something that could benefit them.
For too long, employers have been focussing on the wrong thing, and lockdown has brought this into focus. It’s now time to start thinking about what’s actually being achieved, rather than the process it’s taken to achieve it.
Jessica Morgan is Founder of Carnsight Communications