Flexible working – a risk worth taking?
Some businesses work on the assumption that it’s only the big players who can afford to take the risk to even try a flexible working scheme. There was 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 (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/04/microsoft-japan-four-day-work-week-productivity) . The firm found that efficiency, productivity and worker happiness were boosted by 40%.
Working Mums has long championed the principle of flexible working and has had great success in drawing large employers together to discuss and promote it (insert link to round table). I’ve also seen flexible working succeed in a range of business sizes and verticals. Yes, sometimes employees can take advantage but more often than not it works for all concerned, improves the culture of the organisation and makes individuals more loyal both to their boss and 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 and so extended is daily commute by an hour. In order to soften the blow of this longer day and the pressures of parenting a new born, his line manager allowed him to come in 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 3 dimensions without impacting Adrian’s productivity: he was available as if he was in the office; he became more loyal to the business; and the fact that he wasn’t always travelling at peak times meant he was able to minimise his travelling costs just at a time when money was needed for new baby equipment!!
Indeed my experience has taught me that making flexible working work is just as much about the manager as it is about the individual concerned. I have always worked in the basis that a good manager knows if one of their reports is delivering because of the outputs they observe and not because of their observation of them in the office. Of course, being present with your team is important but not necessarily a requirement all the time. Managed well, everyone can be productive regardless of where they work from.
Give it a go – you might be pleasantly surprised
Here are some ideas I have seen put into practice that have helped flexible working schemes succeed:
- Try it out – test and learn in a structured way and see if it works both for you and the employee concerned. It should always be on a trial basis in the first instance; only agree to a permanent change once everyone is comfortable.
- Assume success – trust is key in any employee/employer relationship, so trust everyone concerned to make it work.
- Only some roles suit flexible working so be realistic on when it is appropriate and manage expectations about what is likely to work.
- Give the individual specific tasks that can be performed remotely on the day(s) in question. Clarity on your expectations and on the outputs gives everyone (including other members of your team watching on) reassurance that the right work really is getting done.
- Give the line-manager support and encouragement to make it work.
- Review on an on-going basis; deal with issues promptly and honestly.
- Lead by example, work flexibly yourself, be effective and tell everyone how it works for you
- Consider team meetings in person say, at the beginning of the week, and then a remote check in at the end of the week to measure progress. This is a particularly good model in a sales context or where a short-term, time pressured project is in progress.
- Make the rules clear and hold everyone to them; measure the impact whenever possible.
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 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. In fact 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, perhaps what the trial at Microsoft in Japan is helping prove to even the most cynical of employers is that, done well, flexible working pays dividends through efficiency, productivity and worker happiness, and I can’t think of a better business case than that.
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