In the minds of many businesses, it is really only the big players who can afford to take the risk to even try a flexible working scheme.
There was, for example, considerable press coverage recently of Microsoft Japan’s flexible working trial involving 2,300 employees taking the day off on five consecutive Fridays over the summer. The firm found that efficiency, productivity and worker happiness were improved by an impressive 40%.
The Working Mums website has long championed the principle of flexible working and has had notable success in drawing large employers together to discuss and promote it (insert link to round table). I have also seen flexible working succeed in a range of business sizes and verticals.
It is true that sometimes employees can take advantage of the practice to the detriment of the business, but more often it works to the benefit of all concerned, humanises the culture of the organisation and makes individuals more loyal both to their immediate boss and to their employer.
Case Study – Adrian
Adrian worked as a commercial director in a media sales company. Almost simultaneously, he became a new father and moved house out of central London to the Essex countryside, thereby extending his daily commute by an hour. In order to mitigate the impact of this longer day and the pressures of parenting a new born, his line manager allowed him to come in to the office a little later, leave a little earlier provided he was in communication whilst travelling and finished the day’s work after putting his young son to bed.
These arrangements worked in three dimensions without having an impact Adrian’s productivity. Firstly, he was available clients when travelling just as if he were in the office. Secondly, his loyalty to the business was enhanced. Thirdly, the fact that he wasn’t always travelling at peak times allowed him to reduce his travelling costs just at the time when money was needed for new baby equipment!
My experience has taught me that making flexible working a success is as much about the manager as it is about the employee concerned. I have long worked on the principle that a good manager knows if one of their team members is being properly productive by observing their work output, not through simply observing that team member in the office. Of course, being a physical presence to your team is an important part of a manager’s role, but not necessarily an incessant requirement.
Managed well, anyone can be productive, irrespective of the actual location where the work takes place.
Try it – you might be pleasantly surprised
Here are some ideas I have seen put into practice that have helped flexible working schemes succeed:
In essence, build a flexible working model that is good for your business. Get this right, celebrate your success and repeat. You may be surprised at the positive impact on your culture just as much as your team’s productivity.
A sting in the tale, so be prepared!
Of course all employees have a legal right to ask to work flexibly; it is almost inevitable that you will be asked so be prepared. Think through in advance which roles might be suitable and which roles will not and have an objective and credible reason for both. Have a plan to deal with these types of requests and, in particular, make sure you deal with them in a non-discriminatory way. Don’t leave yourself open to a claim that the decision not to agree to flexible working was a result of sex, age or disability. This is where a trial can really help all concerned to understand what is practical.
Whilst an employer can refuse to agree to flexible working when there is a business case to do so, perhaps what the trial at Microsoft in Japan is helping to prove to even the most cynical of employers is that, done well, flexible working pays dividends through efficiency, productivity and worker happiness. I cannot think of a better business case than that.
Like most of the business community, I’ve been involved in a number of crisis management meetings over the past few days as the UK comes to terms with the human and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some businesses are getting it wrong. Sports Direct seems to have a knack of consistently behaving badly. Many are being opportunistic and are using the current crisis to unilaterally change the working terms and conditions of their employees (see the case study below) or are finding ways to wriggle out of existing trading arrangements which they have long regretted committing to.
Others are getting it right. For example, Sky are allowing Sky Sports subscribers to suspend their subscriptions at no charge, just by pressing a button. Of course, it would be reputational madness if they didn’t. The supermarkets are doing a fantastic job keeping us all fed in really difficult circumstances. Tesco is a good example of getting the balance right between looking after customers, employees and suppliers.
A good friend of mine works as a manger for a concession in a large department store. His employers notified the entire staff that they were to be unilaterally put on zero hours contracts with two weeks’ notice. No consultation, little explanation, no effort to engage with the government’s offers of financial support. Yes, the business may be under stress, but is this the right way to proceed? The employees have long been aware that the company has a poor reputation in the industry; if it survives, it will be interesting to see how many of the current staff leave as quickly as they can.
I was pleased to see a consistent theme in the discussions I was involved in. At the top of the agenda was continuing to operate in the right way and to not behave badly. The unfortunate truth is that many businesses and individuals are going to experience significant financial difficulties. If they behave poorly not only might these difficulties be exacerbated but also hard-won reputations might be put at risk. Those that act with little integrity now will inevitably find recovery harder as others become weary of doing business with them. Here are some thoughts and tips that have emerged for me over the past couple of weeks:
Most importantly, remember this will come to an end at some point and those around you will remember how you behaved when things were tough.
“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Benjamin Franklin.