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Is flexible working just a myth?

It seems like it was just yesterday when the government announced that anyone after 6 months of working could apply for flexible working arrangements. Like many things in life, this announcement caused controversy and debate within the workplace. Organisations had many questions such as: “Are we prepared for this? Will this mean we will be understaffed? If they decide to work from home one day a week, will they actually work?”, etc. The concerns seem minimal when the truth is that one question still remains, although it has been a legislative change, has the social and technological change happened to actually enable and empower both individuals and organisations for this??

From what I’ve seen out in different workplaces for the most part flexible working is a myth. Something you can use to market yourself, but when the push comes to shove it doesn’t actually exist.

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In one organisation for example, a contact of mine applied for flexible working. It took about 3 months to get a response and the reality is that even though their work went from 5 to 4 days, the workload stayed the same. So in reality they were getting paid less to work the same amount of hours. This is not the only case I’ve heard of flexible working going array.

In other examples, the individuals do not feel they can comfortably ask their bosses for this perk. They are afraid of future repercussions and what will the organisation think about them. Will it seem to them they are uncommitted, not able to do their job, or will they be restructured out? They look at the risks and decide against it sacrificing personal life and commitments for a career. The consequences of this however can be detrimental to an organisation. As personal and professional lines blur, you can expect either burn out, disengaged, or stressed employees or all three.

The last scenario to back up my myth allegation is that many individuals would probably be happier with flexible work in the way of being able to work remotely once or twice a week. To be honest, quite a lot of positions in organisations could potentially work 80% remotely. The challenge is that many organisations refuse to do this in fear of people not working, or agree but do not establish the tools for individuals to work effectively away from the office. Imagine that you requested to work once a week from home, but the organisation did not provide you with a laptop or a tablet, no remote access to your files, and no phone diversion or mobile capability? Well… it would be a bit useless to say the least.

Of course, it would be a bold generalisation to say all organisations are the same. I have also seen some exceptional examples where they take flexible working to where it really matters: CULTURE. So it is no longer just a “perk” or something you have to apply for; it is just the way they do things at the office. This is actually great and where I see it more is in organisations with a high demographic of millennials. Is this a coincidence? I very much doubt it. I personally believe it works well with these organisations because they look at work from a very different mindset. So to help organisations reach this point I decided to finish this off with 5 great tips that can be transferred to any organisation:

  1. To enable flexible working is to also enable remote working. They go hand in hand. Make sure you are investing in the IT infrastructure needed. Think it costs a lot? Have a look at what you are paying for office space and other office equipment, travel expenses, legacy systems etc. and then decide! In most cases it will be worth it!
  2. It all comes down to trust. If you trust employees and have set clear expectations they will give back. As human beings we are born with a reciprocity tendency. If someone shows us good will we are likely to want to pay them back. So why not just trust this is going to be the case?
  3. Set clear expectations and goals. Goes hand in hand with number 3. It comes down to good old management, if you set clear expectations they will know what to work towards.
  4. Lead by example, if a leader is in the office 9am-9pm the message going out to employees is, you need to be here that same amount of time. Make sure as a leader you are also embracing these advantages.
  5. Flexible working is more than just having days off or working from home, it is about allowing employees to sometimes go off and do personal errands during work hours. This may seem controversial, but all it means that instead of working 9-5 they will make up the hours then or later. Work at the end of the day is about meeting targets, reaching goals and managing projects to create x or y result. So as long as that is happening does it matter if you have some fantastic employees that can get it done in less than 8 hours? Or if they go off to a long lunch once in a while? Or to the bank, pick up dry cleaning, or get a package delivered to their house, etc? I think not.

Flexible working is the future of work if we are to create sustainable successful workplaces. It needs to be much more than an offering, but go into the very heart of the organisation, its culture and processes. Much is needed in many organisations to evolve and create true flexible working that enables both individuals and organisations. Feel free to get in touch, comment or debate this topic! Follow me on Twitter: @SustainableOD

(Individuals and organisations talked about in this blog have remained anonymous to protect all parties)

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