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Flexible working: the benefits and barriers

In this article, we consider the benefits of flexible working, the barriers to implementing a successful flexible working policy and the latest developments in the flexible working debate.

During the previous 12 months, people-power has come to the fore across the world. Unlikely voices have risen-up to affect unexpected changes, challenging historical rules and destabilising traditional centres of authority. Now the People want to shake things up at work too, a world for so long tied to rigid indefatigable ways. Office environments and working hours are under scrutiny as workers seek to be released from the associated constraints of employment. Emotional phrases such as Avoid paid imprisonment and ‘Open the door of Cell Block 9 to 5’ - taken from some of the current research on the subject - are helping to fan the flames of revolution.

But does the increased demand for variable working times, patterns and locations mean employers’ must simply give up the tools and rules that enable them to monitor and control their staff? Or is it a chance for greater employer-employee collaboration; the natural evolution of practices, facilitated by smarter leadership and technologies?


Two steps forward  the benefits of flexible working

Flexible working is undoubtedly the current employment buzz-phrase. Experts claim demand has now reached a tipping point as employees seek a greater sense of control over their working lives and a desire to reap the benefits of flexible working. There are currently around a third of UK employees with the ability to either work at different times, or in different locations. Those who have experienced all or some variation to their hours, shift patterns or location are regularly reported as benefitting from feeling more trusted and happier at work, enjoying better health and wellbeing and having an overall improved work life balance. These outcomes are a consequence of factors such as fewer distractions, reduced travelling times, and the ability - through having more time during their day - to eat healthily as well as exercise.

Companies too, that have conceded to workers’ calls for greater ownership of the working day say they experience numerous benefits of flexible working including increased productivity and better overall engagement; in addition to talent attraction successes, higher staff retention, reduced absenteeism and improved customer service and innovation.

Such is the compelling case for flexible working, that in 2014 the right to request it was extended to include all UK employees, whereas previously only those with childcare or other caring responsibilities were eligible. The law stipulates that each request must be dealt with on an individual case by case basis. It is then at the employers’ discretion whether to accept the request. Almost three years since regulations were introduced, however, and even though studies consistently demonstrate that demand is higher than ever, the increase in the number of people making requests has been relatively small.

What does this mean?  Could it be that employees don’t expect to get their requests accepted, regardless of the benefits of flexible working? Or maybe it’s that they’re are not satisfied with the arrangements offered and therefore don’t bother asking for changes they deem to be unbefitting of their needs?  


One step back  the perceived disadvantages of flexible working

Let’s deal with rejection first. The law provides seven categories which allow employers to reject requests for flexible working. They include factors such as an inability to meet the burden of additional costs, to reorganise work or recruit cover; or a fear that customer needs will not be met if changes are made. These perceived issues are linked to various assumed barriers to implementing flexible working.

For example, research has highlighted that most HR managers expect implementing flexible working will cause added bureaucracy and will prove too challenging for their teams. Other major barriers to change include a lack of trust, being that it’s difficult to oversee work which isn’t taking place within the ‘normal parameters.’ Process related problems like inadequate management practices i.e. managers can’t provide the necessary support or guidance to make flexibility work for the whole team; and technological obstacles in that a company’s technology assets are perceived as being insufficient to enable, for instance, remote working.

Although these are all valid reasons to reject an individual request, it seems unlikely that such a high number of people -  the demand for flexible working outstrips those currently enjoying it by 50% - would be put off from making an application based solely on these formal objections. So, what else is going on?

One emerging issue reveals that employers are avoiding having to dish out rejection anyway. Earlier this year it was reported some companies still tacitly treat flexible working as the sole privilege of women with children. This is despite the flexible working policy being inclusive to everyone for reasons covering religious commitments to medical conditions. ‘Informal arrangements’ to allow for childcare responsibilities exist instead of official changes to contracts, therefore negating the need for employers to acknowledge a need for formal changes to be made.

Another and seemingly more common problem averting people from requesting flexibility at work, however, are its various associated stigmas. A 2017 survey revealed that regardless of its popularity amongst workers, the perception is that employers regard those who want some form of flexible working arrangement as being uncommitted, unambitious and lazy. Worried that moving to a flexible arrangement would negatively impact their career, employees are reluctant to push for change. Furthermore, other reports talk about job insecurity caused by an unstable economy as being a key detractor. 

If it isn’t fear of rejection and ridicule that is putting people off from pursing their flexible working rights, then maybe it is that they’re not satisfied with the arrangements offered and therefore don’t bother making them. To consider this angle, we need to first look at how flexible working is defined.


A step too far?

In some respects, the official terminology and associated process of flexible working legislation is built upon an oxymoron. ‘Flexibility’ within the context of work simply means moving from one ‘fixed’ arrangement to another; be it a contractual change to your hours, location or shift pattern. Agreements are also designed specifically for individuals and are therefore exclusive rather than inclusive. In addition, the legal angle is positioned as being unfavourable to the employer because of the implicit cost incurred to allow flexibility to take place.

The scenarios described in the section above depict an ongoing battle between employers and employees over the issue of flexible working. Yet, as alluded to at the beginning of this article, there are calls for a different approach, one that is more aligned to the modern world and which encourages smarter leadership and the leveraging of technology.

The phrase ‘agile working’ is starting to trickle into the world of management literature. This model is considered as the natural evolution of flexible working and proposes to empower all employees to work where, when and how they choose.The argument is that agile-working future-proofs a business by making it “more responsive, efficient and effective.” It turns flexible working legislation on its head by suggesting companies effectively ignore it, and instead make agility the rule for everyone, rather than creating another layer of rigidity and control that only appeases certain individuals.

Firstly, customers today demand a more tailored and flexible service. In our global 24/7 world; the importance of speed, knowledge and relationships have surpassed those of time, location and presence. Not only that, global warming is urging people to think about how they can be more sustainable by finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Although cars are usually pinpointed as a great cause of this, in the UK it is actually offices that are the biggest source, accounting for around 40% of overall emissions. Plus offices are expensive, under occupied and require people to waste time travelling to them  additional factors that highlight the benefits of flexible working. UK workers currently average the longest commutes to work in Europe and there are a range of studies which confirm a link between long commutes and stress.

And is technology not now the great enabler of a truly flexible life? Yes, it can be an obstacle for some firms; yet the increase in the use of laptops, smart phones and other devices, VPNs, enterprise social networks, video conferencing, etc. shows that as more innovative technology emerges the potential to remove the traditional limitations of how and when people work will be a reality for every business eventually. It could be that those businesses claiming technology is a detractor rather than an enabler of flexibility are still being short-sighted about how they can use the tools available.

So, with these emerging social and commercial factors driving the need for change, why don’t more companies start investigating possibilities and making necessary investments?


Walk before you can run

Perhaps because the biggest barrier of all to flexible working is a cultural one. To drive wholehearted transformation like this requires a complete change of mind-set to make it happen. Therefore, as with any transformation, most businesses will benefit by making incremental changes over time.

The key thing is to make sure that the People are at the heart of the process. So far we’ve only considered barriers and disadvantages of flexible working from an employer perspective, but there are issues reported by employees already enjoying flexible working arrangements. These include feeling disconnected from their teams or from the company in general, and a perceived need to work long hours. The cause of these problems is the result of factors highlighted earlier - namely the fixed nature of flexible working contracts leading to workers becoming isolated because they are now ‘permanently’ based offsite or working outside of normal office hours; or because there is a lack of trust behind the arrangements forcing people to work longer hours as a way of proving rules are not being flaunted.

The most successful approaches to flexible working must therefore be developed with staff, rather than driven from the top down. Business leaders should be seen to lead by example, though, and conduct themselves in ways of flexible working that they want to encourage. Good practices in this regard are actively discouraging working longer hours and measuring and rewarding output rather than visibility. ‘Presenteeism’ has been confirmed as a bigger cost than absenteeism to employers and still exists in a fixed flexible working context - e.g. being logged-on, always available by phone, active on email and company intranets, etc. Those expected to be present in this way can suffer stress and be less productive.

In addition to ensuring the right technology is in place, making flexible or mobile working a rule rather than an exception can lead to smarter and more productive working habits. Research has shown how mobile workers create their own personalised routines and effectively self-discipline themselves. Putting trust in People to manage their time properly can avoid negative outcomes and behaviours like those described above.

The People’s demand for flexible working isn’t going to go away and those companies that don’t embrace a flexible future risk putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Removing stigmas and inherent prejudices that surround flexible hours and mobile locations, and adopting a collegial approach where different methods are tried and tested with employees until the best and mutually beneficial solutions are found, will be the ones heralded as the true revolutionaries, and which future talent will flock to.

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