How to get flexible working right

We’re seeing that employees have responded positively to increased flexibility with the ability to juggle home-life priorities alongside work. Being empowered to decide where, when and how to work is not only motivating to teams, but it’s an important retention tool too. 

Over the past few years, Covid-19, the great resignation, the cost-of-living crisis and continued economic uncertainty have shaped a new world of work. And organisations have felt the pressure of navigating these changes; from implementing hybrid working, to adopting new technologies, redesigning the office environment and learning to understand how their teams want to work, and from where. But, there has also been a more positive knock-on effect whereby the importance of flexible working has not just been acknowledged, but it’s started to be implemented in new ways across industries and organisations.

Last year, the most common hybrid working pattern for UK workers was working mostly from home (42%), according to the Office for National Statistics. And, more than three quarters (78%) of those who worked from home in 2022 said that being able to do so gave them an improved work life balance.

The truth is in the data. We’re seeing that employees have responded positively to increased flexibility with the ability to juggle home-life priorities alongside work. Being empowered to decide where, when and how to work is not only motivating to teams, but it’s an important retention tool too.

But now, we find that employers are increasingly putting pressure on returning to the office full time.. Recent data from LinkedIn shows that remote roles are declining, despite their popularity among job seekers. This demonstrates a mismatch between the flexibility employees want from work, and what many employers are now offering.

It is crucial that employers meet employees in the middle when it comes to flexibility, and here we outline how.

#1 Recognise that strong workplace culture can still exist in a flexible workplace
Employers often fear a loss of control, lowered productivity, and the end of corporate culture when flexible work is implemented. But this is not the reality. A great workplace culture and employees productivity cannot be measured based on the location from which they conduct their work. It all comes down to working practices.

Access to tools like people analytics and collaboration analytics offer people teams a better understanding of how flexible working is impacting corporate culture, so that they can adjust accordingly.

But, to analyse culture successfully, it’s important to understand what flexibility means to each individual employee. Flexibility will come in different shapes and forms, and there is no one size fits all approach.

Once business leaders have identified these differences, people analytics can be used to narrow the focus to where the workforce has the highest impact on the company’s goal. When performing this analysis, remember not to report solely on single metrics as these won’t tell the whole story. Look for the trends, connections, and contradictions between your different data points. For example, looking at how employee sentiment is affected by flexible hours, remote working days and hybrid working performance.

#2 Empower your employees with their own flexibility
For employers wanting to attract and retain the best talent, they’ll likely have found themselves embracing ideas that perhaps in years gone by, might have felt unimaginable and far from reality. From implementing meeting-free days, to early finish Fridays, or flexi-time. There are lots of approaches to flexible working that can be used to nurture employee happiness.

The key here however, is in what Gartner refers to as ‘radical flexibility’. This is essentially giving employees their own autonomy and flexibility to decide where and when they work. To make this a success, businesses will need to continue evolving their ways of working.

Technology plays a leading role in enabling this.

People data can help companies to embrace this opportunity, with greater visibility into employee sentiment, working hours and output. This is not a practice designed to monitor productivity efforts. But, it instead ensures individuals feel in control over their working lives, while managers are able to be mindful of unhealthy working patterns.

Here, burnout must remain front and centre in the minds of managers as employees take flexibility into their own hands. Research found that nearly three quarters (73%) of employees feel more burnt out after the pandemic than they did before. Working outside of the office due to the pandemic was the most significant change during this time, now leaders must look out for similar implications which can be caused by flexible working today.

#3 Ensure a data driven-approach to the WFH balance
Making data available to your business provides direct access to rich analytics to help support workforce decisions. Not just to HR staff members, but to other leaders and people managers, even employees themselves.

Adding an analytics layer gives managers what they need to perform active listening – not surveillance – and make sure employees are getting the support they need, especially with flexible working.

Companies are inundated with data. But the power is in what they do with this data, and the context that surrounds it. Many organisations struggle to ensure that data is made available to the right people when they need it— and in a way they can understand it. Ensuring that data is presented in such a way that it can be readily understood and analysed by managers can help ease concerns, and answer the teams questions such as “am I doing this right?”

Analytics software that looks at sentiment in the aggregate can surface early warning signs such as mental health issues or a lack of engagement. It helps combat burnout, foster more meaningful connections, and reduce proximity bias.

#5 Create actionable plans, with benefits that your people really want
It’s all well and good using people data to support flexible workers, but people teams must consider the benefits that employees really want from this model.

For example, research from CIPD finds that employees value the ability to be able to balance their job with other responsibilities such as caring for family members. This insight shows that employees will be looking for employers that support them in managing their home-life admin, alongside work.

Uncovering these insights can be achieved by combining siloed data on employee sentiment and engagement to highlight the benefits that employees will value the most. By combining data, employers can offer realistic and clear flexible work boundaries, more learning and development opportunities people will actually benefit from, and bonus schemes that can help mitigate economic stresses.

#6 Ensure equality between remote and in person colleagues
Despite offering a flexible workplace, not all employees will want to use this model. For some, face time with colleagues is preferred, and home working isn’t always possible. Therefore, employers must ensure they are building an equal working environment inside the office, and outside of the office.

There can often be a gap between those who work remotely and those who spend more time together in person. For example, proximity bias—the subconscious tendency to value and reward physical presence—is even more of a problem for those who prefer to work from home.

Individuals from certain groups, including women and parents of young children, are more likely to work from home as often as they can. This can lead to inequity, especially in pay progress for people who work remotely.

Research from LinkedIn uncovers the impact of proximity bias with business leaders saying their biggest concerns are that employees who choose to work from home may feel left out of promotion or career decisions (35%), and ‘proximity bias’ may arise where people positively favour employees they regularly see (32%).

Using people data, managers can avoid this kind of bias and create an even playing field for everyone on their team. For example, at one large technology company who uses Visier, managers were making compensation decisions that were leading to inequity, employee dissatisfaction, and churn. But after the managers were equipped with people analytics, they could make informed, objective pay decisions that aligned to the market and internal compensation structure.

As the working world becomes more flexible, it’s vital organisations ensure their people are getting the support they need, the perks that matter, and the tools needed to do their job.

Prior to the pandemic when we were in the office everyday, it was enough for people managers to simply track general demographic, geographic, and behavioural data. But with the new flexible world of  work, they need to look further to understand how employees are feeling too.  With employees working different hours, from different locations, employers can no longer rely on employee feedback to monitor this. Instead, data needs to be paired together to tell the employee story.

The bottom line is if employers want employees to produce their best work, they need to ask themselves if they are doing enough to empower, engage and support workers no matter where they chose to work from.

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