RSS Feed

Previous Roundtables

Flexible Workforce Performance Roundtable Report

17 March 2011     London
Hosted by theHRDIRECTOR.
Chaired by Jason Spiller.

DELEGATES
Kathy Coshan HR Director – Tristar Worldwide Chauffer Services
Andrew Walsh, Head of Human Resources – The Pensions Trust
Barbara Henwood, VP HR EMEA – Warner Bros
Simon Connington, Director – BPS Europe
Karen McCormack, HR Business Partner – Alliance Trust
Miranda Moncur, HR Operations Manager – TUI
Suzanne Hughes, HR Director – Santander
Robert Bull, HR Manager – Bechtel
Matt Wheeler, Director – Amano
Chris O’Riordan, Managing Director – Amano

If traditional workforce management was about rigid time and motion parameters, focusing on efficiency, flexible workforce is about performance, and represents the most radical change in the workplace in recent years.

HR must deliver the resourcing requirements of business, set against the increasing demands for workplace flexibility. As always, change presents as many challenges as it does opportunities. A significant shift in the employer/employee proposition cannot be at the expense of reduced management control and diminished individual responsibility. Consequently, accurate and effective monitoring, measuring and reporting on flexible workplace performance is essential.

How can businesses develop a successful, flexible, working strategy?

Rob Bull: This debate is about whether we can manage flexibility properly. We don’t want to get people to clock in all of the time because it is not culturally acceptable in the context of empowerment. We want employees to take responsibility for their own performance and we want discretionary performance and engagement and by the way, ‘you have to clock in’.

And Amano is originally a manufacturer of clocking in technology?

Chris O’Riordan: Absolutely, and you would not believe how many traditional clocking in machines are still sold in the UK every day of the week. Secondly you wouldn’t believe how many employees who clock in and out every day of the week. There is a big conflict between this perceived rigidity of recording time and the desire for flexibility. The movement we are seeing is into much more user-enabling type solutions: where people are, monitoring their time through web portals. It’s a big cultural leap for all parties really.

Andrew Walsh: I think that’s a good point. We’ve still got a clock system, we use fingerprint now, but people can access it remotely at home, they can access it when they’re on the move, it’s free online, but I think it’s essential. Our industry is a continual process, and that has to be covered all the time.

The ability to work flexibly must depend on the type of job.

Suzanne Hughes: It varies of course. If you work in a supporting function like HR or finance, then you may be in a role where you could get up at three in the morning. If you’re a Customer Service Advisor in a branch of a bank, then you’ve got to be there when the branch is open. It’s not possible to have everyone in our business working remotely, but I suppose it goes back to what you define as flexible. There are different ways of working.

Miranda Moncur: I think you should manage according to the individual and not according to a general culture. A person that has proven through their capability and through their discretionary effort, a manager is confident in that individual.

The theory is wonderful, but it could lead to issues.

Miranda Moncur: Depending on the openness of the manager in the first place. The focus is on one to ones’, weekly, monthly, team meetings, reviews, and with a focus on your KPI performance, as well as your behavioural performance. We invest in up-skilling managers and talent planning matrices.

Andrew Walsh: We assess and we performance manage our employees based on engagement and performance, and those who are more engaged and perform better get access to more discretionary flexible benefits.

How much more of a challenge does flexible working create when you’re doing workplace strategy, for now and the future.

Suzanne Hughes: We’ve actually looked at our resourcing around getting some employees in who work on a part time basis to cover busy times. Flexible working patterns were a benefit for us rather than a challenge. As an employer, you might be faced with a very talented individual who, if you’re not able to offer flexible ways of working, might leave and take their talents somewhere else.

Customer-facing staff is crucial in branches, but not so much for financial, projectbased work.

Suzanne Hughes: The way that we manage this is by individual business need and making sure that any request for flexible working has a good rationale. You have to be quite transparent about how you judge each request. If you’ve got good rationale, then I think people will be more accepting of the decisions you make.

Miranda Moncur: For me, flexibility is moving someone from one part of the business to another, without there being a massive discussion around how to make that happen. That relies entirely on the engagement manager talking to the individual. In the travel industry, we rely upon flexibility.

Barbara Henwood: It would be the same for us. If we’ve got a movie coming out then our publicity people are working 24/7 and they’re working seven days a week, because they’re out on press junkets, then they may do very little for the next three weeks, but then the next movie comes out and then they’re doing two weeks’ worth of 15 hour days.

Presumably, flexible working is difficult to right into contracts, and what about holiday allocation?

Kathy Cosham: As a chauffeur drive company we have a promise that our chauffeurs will be at your door on time. We don’t have all our chauffeurs clocking on and off per se, but we have to have an entire resourcing team that monitors, 24/7, and we have the luxury of being able to offer many shift start options. In respect of flexibility, you’ve got to be able to have that manoeuvrability in your business. We’ve updated contracts, and this option has been brought on board to give the business that flexibility.

How much is it a change of culture?

Chris O’Riordan: Recording time management, productivity management has always been the industrial and manufacturing environments. The big challenge in our marketing and strategic approach has been how to break into new markets, especially the white collar market. In nontraditional environments, senior management must be persuaded that there is as much to benefit the business as there is the employee. It is interesting that pressure from the employee is starting to build up a little bit more than it has, and managers are having to react.

Barbara Henwood: We did an engagement survey and one of the biggest asks from the employees was for flexible working and it’s pretty tough because the company that we work for wakes up at five o’clock in the evening, our time, so it’s not that easy but we said to them “OK come up with a flexible working policy and let’s see what we can do”? but these are the parameters, you’ve got to do your 37 hour week, it’s got to fit in with the business. They all went away and they came back with a policy and we implemented it.

Matt Wheeler: There is a very different view between the employee and the employer, about what flexibility is all about. From an employee’s point of view, they want to go home early, they want to pick the kids up from school, they want to go and play their sports – from a business point of view, we talk about having to work 24/7 effectively and then, in an international business, where we are effectively removing international barriers, we do need to be able to work at five o’clock in the morning and do conference calls with other countries – that’s where the business needs become very different to what the employee thinks that they’re going to get from flexible working.

There is a danger that flexible working legislation will not be helpful to employers.

Kathy Coshan: As a company we are also seeing an increase in Reasonable Adjustment requests. We are a 24/7 operation, and most come in asking for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights off… our busiest times. You may think that I appear to be cynical, but when we receive a request for a Reasonable Adjustment, we always ask for supporting evidence to validate the request. That is when the reasons for wanting the time off most frequently changes and the supporting evidence is just not available.

Suzanne Hughes: It can be the accumulation of flexible working patterns that can become difficult to manage. If you’re the manager of a team and someone asks to work from home on a Friday, well you may agree that is fine. Then someone else asks to work compressed hours and not work on a Wednesday, and that’s alright too. Then someone else makes another flexible working request and so it builds. In the end this complexity might give operational issues for the manager. Maybe this is the time when we’ve got to look at the way we operate and fundamentally make changes, rather than trying to carry on with our old ways of working with flexible patterns building on top of it.

Rob Bull: That’s why I was slightly confused about getting flexible reward, the fairness aspect, that one gets it and somebody else doesn’t. The slightly worrying thing, to put a dampner on this, is something that I always call ‘who dares wins’? and, in my experiences, if you introduce flexibility, you probably reward a lot of the wrong people.

Does there need to be a change in emphasis that will put employers back in control of flexibility?

Simon Connington: The first question to ask is why consider flexible working in the first place? Is it to provide a competitive edge when recruiting and retaining talent, or is it because it is part of the organisation’s culture and values? For flexible working arrangements to work they must be based on trust and ultimately that originates in the culture of the organisation.

Karen McCormack: It’s about a culture shift, but when you’ve got two different cultures in the same company it’s difficult to change mindsets, in an area which typically hasn’t seen the benefits of flexible working arrangements. Typically, our investment analysts and fund managers work standard patterns, in line with FTSE trading hours. On the other hand, our savings subsidiary business is extremely fast-paced, growing quickly and by nature, is more operational based. We introduced an open flexible working policy at the end of 2007, and to date, only ten percent of our total staff actually work flexibly.

It’s a case of managing expectation against meeting the needs of the business.

Miranda Moncur: It’s getting people comfortable with changing environments and I guess that starts from the time you recruit them. I know when I recruit into the team that I manage, I say ‘this is the most changeable environment you may have experienced – the world around us is constantly changing’.

Kathy Coshan: We all have to be very comfortable with, the sort of HR, where managers are actively encouraged to revisit flexible requests and not just let them sit in place, because you’ve agreed to an adjustment two years ago. Managers need to be able to explain the needs of the business, discuss it amongst yourselves, how you are going to facilitate any changes needed to support the business?

Andrew Walsh: It’s got to be controlled, but one of the difficulties we have encountered is, with all the publicity about flexible working, managers believe they don’t have a choice of whether to agree to flexible working or not.

Matt Wheeler: We talk about employees asking for flexibility and then senior management within businesses recognising there is a business benefit to flexibility, but we also need to address the middle managers and line managers that actually have to administer the hours. They have the additional workload to cope with this. So is there actually a resistance at that level to offer flexibility because they have the additional workload, or they feel like they don’t have a choice?

Barbara Henwood: There can be a reluctance from managers, there’s almost a feeling of a lack of control, but there’s also a really strong feeling of fairness and the fact that they can’t offer that opportunity to everybody.

And there is the issue of equipping flexible workers.

Suzanne Hughes: If you end up with an environment where people have got the technology – they’ve got a laptop, a Blackberry, there’s then much more of an expectation that the employee will work flexibly. In some instances it could be that working remotely doesn’t actually suit that individual. They may not live in an environment where working effectively at home is actually going to be successful.

Barbara Henwood: We are working almost 24/7, that’s not flexible working, that’s over-working.

Simon Connington: You’ve got to step away, in my opinion, from trying to control people. The focus has to move to outcomes. Individuals need to be managed on what they achieve, against the outcomes and objectives they were set and agreed to. You are passing the responsibility to the employee.

So they’re effectively filling out a time sheet but it’s not a time sheet.

Simon Connington: Given the right structure, conversations can take place once a month with the line manager. Last month’s achievements can be reviewed and the new month’s is set. On a quarterly basis, the conversation can be extended to review the employee’s total responsibilities, to make sure they have clear direction.

Surely it’s a case of whether people are performing well or not in a flexible working environment?

Chris O’Riodan: Defining what flexible working actually means is a key issue. In some environments there just has to be staff coverage at all times in order for the operation to work; therefore, flexible working in that environment is a management issue, just a scheduling/rostering mechanic. The other side of flexible working is the ‘work at home for a day’ for increased personal productivity. This becomes another management issue. I remember a sales boss saying; “I don’t care if my best salesman’s on the golf course on a Friday afternoon so long as he’s hitting his numbers”, and in many ways, that’s what it boils down to.

Simon Connington: Given the correct framework to operate within, then yes, the engagement and productivity that follows is tremendous. Further to this there is a significant reduction in the time required to manage the people in the organisation.

By and large, everybody around the table appears to be an advocate of flexible working.

Rob Bull: Yes, I think we, as employers want to be scrupulously fair with everybody and if you’re fair with everybody then, by definition, that probably makes you less flexible because you are turning some situations down, because not everybody can have the flexible benefit.

You could have two colleagues that do primarily the same job but one’s got more flexibility than the other?

Miranda Moncur: I would advocate performancerelated flexibility and increasingly, we make decisions about people as individuals and a lot of that is driven by their performance. You can have a flexible working policy and it can be a framework within which managers have the freedom to apply flexible working, according to performance.

So that doesn’t open employers up to discrimination.

Miranda Moncur: Not at all, the ethos is to make decisions based on performance. And you must have the right managers to be able to make those decisions

Paradoxically, flexibility could ‘out’ people that aren’t right for the organisation.

Karen McCormack: We all speak about work/life balance and we have found that some people with flexible working arrangements, particularly those on condensed hours, are actually working more effectively, because they’ve got the best of both worlds. The downside is, on one hand you encourage flexible working and on the other you advise staff their benefits will be affected i.e. four fifths holiday entitlement, private healthcare won’t be 100 percent funded, share options are reduced.

I am surprised that the recession hasn’t de-railed the notion of flexible working. Is it actually a recessionary tool?

Suzanne Hughes: Well, for some companies it definitely has helped in the recession, where in order to avoid redundancies, employers have asked employees to work fewer hours. So it can be an absolute benefit. Also, during recessions, some companies have encouraged more people to work from home on a more permanent basis in order to reduce the overheads of a central office. So, there can be times where flexibility has really helped businesses.

Barbara Henwood: I think also it is the changing face of the employee, and employers need to think about changing employment practices. For example, there are more women returning to work following maternity and invariably, they are looking for flexibility on their return.

Suzanne Hughes: Yes, I agree. I think there is more demand, as people entering the workplace now have grown up with so much more technology at their fingertips that doesn’t require them to be in a certain place at a certain time to communicate or to work. So their expectation, as they come into the workplace, will be different to 20 years ago. I think that employers will be under more pressure, if they don’t provide flexibility options.

What measures need to be in place to effectively manage time and attendance in a flexible workforce to achieve optimised efficiency and performance of resources?

Kathy Coshan: The main barrier to flexibility is getting managers to see what benefits it has, for the employee as well as the business.

Chris O’Riordan: To paraphrase Stephen Covey, whoever you are, there are only a fixed number of hours in a week, 168. The challenge is to decide how to use those 168 hours. How many are you going to allocate to work and how are you going to manage your effectiveness and productivity during that period?

And the downsides of flexible working, perhaps remote working… disconnect?

Rob Bull: With regard to employees working remotely, we have to measure their communication contribution. Just because I’ve answered the email may not actually be good enough in many respects. It’s the ability to attend meetings, to have a one-to-one contact with your internal customers, rather than just being in cyber-space the whole time.

Suzanne Hughes: I think in the current way we work there’s a risk that you can be quite isolated and potentially miss out on casual but important conversations for example, at the coffee machine. Let’s look to technology to support that type of casual conversation, that interaction, through messaging, seeing who is on-line, discussion groups etc. It might not be in the way that we are familiar with today, but this needs to become as comfortable as face-to-face.

There are offices that are packed, in a business that supports flexible working.

Suzanne Hughes: For some, myself included, the idea of waking up in the morning, getting dressed, not leaving the house, going and sitting at my computer, working away. Then at the end of it, having my dinner and going to bed and potentially never leaving the house, sounds horrible. So it’s trying to get a balance between remote working and also the need for human interaction too.

Simon Connington: Here’s something we found. People did get frustrated about not having people around all the time. So the teams imposed their own protocols on communicating and also to be present when required. The teams found that they enjoyed the office and work community and wanted to retain that value. Flexibility needs to work both ways.

Matt Wheeler: It goes back to engagement. Because you’ve got this kind of regimented approach, you’ve got people at work, you’ve got people doing the things that the business genuinely wants them to do, but they’re making their own choices, so they do have their flexibility, or that kind of perceived flexibility, that they’ve made their own judgment. It actually goes around full circle, and frankly, a lot of people like the idea of having structure in their lives. I think the key for me is enabling people to make fact-based decisions, so that they can make their choices.

Barbara Henwood: You can set very clear objectives and you can manage effectively but the question mark for them is, how do I know I wouldn’t be getting more, would they not be going an extra mile, they’re meeting the objectives and just meeting the objectives but actually could they be achieving more if they were in a more structured environment?

If it is about people taking responsibility, they will need access to information.

Barbara Henwood: There are concerns about the safety of allowing access to business information on home computers and there is limited access to things like the server and files on the server which can be limiting in terms of what an employee is able to do remotely.

Andrew Walsh: Our business runs exclusively on technology, all pension allocation payments are done through technology, so we’ve got a very sophisticated system whereby you can work at home and have a virtual office.

Karen McCormack: We’ve got exactly the same situation in our company. There is no one working remotely because, at the end of the day, they have access to clients’ personal details and assets and, therefore, there’s too much of a security barrier to be able to allow people to work at home. Although we’ve got an open, flexible working policy, there are always parameters.

Matt Wheeler: I think that’s where a lot of the software that businesses can deploy can come into its own, because that’s when you can allow a certain level of responsibility to the employees, to manage their own shifts, but under certain parameters, you can control. So, if you always need to have three people in the business at any given time, and someone is saying “I can’t do my shift, then an alarm is raised to say, hang on a minute, we haven’t got enough people anymore, which then can alert the manager to actually take control. So it can be self-policing to a degree”.

So self-service is on the increase.

Matt Wheeler: Well I think self-service is a growing trend and it would be interesting to see what people think about that, but I think you have to have self-service with a level of control because if you just open it up completely, there is the danger that the business could experience a disaster because things haven’t been managed effectively.

And there will always be occasions where flexible working will challenge an operation.

Suzanne Hughes: Yes, I think within the branch network, one of our biggest challenges is around making sure we’ve got the resourcing levels right in the branch, serving our customers. That is why we’re using part time employees to cover our busiest periods. So getting the mix right is very important. It’s an on-going challenge for us to think of innovative ways to be able to keep the service to the customer and make sure we’ve got the right people in the branches when we need them.

Monitoring and measuring is key to supporting remote workers.

Kathy Cosham: Very much so, we’ve got a fairly robust and integrated reporting pda system, when an employee can’t make a journey, maybe they are stuck in traffic or something’s happened partly way through the journey, they press the button, that’s responded to immediately and we can come back to them immediately.

Chris O’Riordan: One of the more common applications that we’ve seen embedded in organisations over the last two or three years is self-service applications; going online in their own time to request annual leave, seeing what people in their same skill set pool or same team department are doing, so they can make an informed choice. So if I ask for holiday when another four people in my team have got it, chances are I’m not going to get it. It becomes virtually self-managing.

And it’s accepting that the employer/employee and peer to peer relationships are changing.

Matt Wheeler: I think that’s where people take responsibility for themselves, but also responsibility for the team environment they work in as well, because they feel accountable to that team. So, going back to the decisions that people make about how they work, if they know that they’re not pulling their weight and they’re not actually working to the level that they should be, then that reflects badly on the team as well, so that good ethos is critical to performance level as well.

Miranda Moncur: If people are engaged, teams work. We are certainly moving away from the traditional vertical upwards communication to a more natural communication.

Chris O’Riordan: We need the same principles whereby an employer, a management team, can set parameters and the logic is there built within the solutions.

How much responsibility do employers have for the welfare of home workers?

Suzanne Hughes: Within our company we have home worker guidelines. We will do assessments if someone’s going to be working permanently remotely. Following up on the previous point about having fixed times when everyone needs to be at work. Creating a framework around flexible working with some specific times where people work remotely and come into the office can be effective. Increasingly, we should be using technology to keep up the communications for people so that they are able to access what’s going on from home through intranet stories, discussion groups. I think from HR and also from a corporate communications team as well, there’s an element of looking at the changing face of the workplace and thinking through what tools we need.

Andrew Walsh: That’s where your policy bit comes in. It’s important to differentiate between permanent home working and casual home working because they are two mediums.

Flexibility with caveats – it is an interesting paradox.

Rob Bull: Moving from a more rigid traditional work pattern, which may not be flexible, to more flexibility requires a greater degree of discipline because you may have to manage your calendar with more discipline. Therefore, to work best, you actually need to sharpen up your time management, which might seem contradictory to the notion of flexibility.

Simon Connington: There are a lot of interpretations of flexibility. It does not just mean working around employees or just working from home. It is a two way understanding and is ultimately focused on achieving true job fulfillment for the employee and the employer.

How do you plan for the unplanned?

Karen McCormack: If you have a flexible workforce in terms of what they actually do you are in a stronger position to consider their application in respect of the wider operation. The recent snow situation was an opportunity for us to identify some of the gaps in our operation; we recovered from it and can now consider more flexible working applications in areas where previously we felt the business couldn’t support.

Are the traditional employee issues, such as training and career progression different in flexible working environments?

Barbara Henwood: I think you do have to re-visit all of your policies, because the minute you don’t, you’ll slip up on a technicality at some point in the future, but I don’t think it makes any dramatic difference.

Suzanne Hughes: Some obvious ones might be around training and development. Does the learning delivery approach fit with all the different working patterns? This would also apply to professional development and how you manage talent and people’s careers. It’s also around reviewing the implications that people working flexibly will have on each policy and way of working.

Andrew Walsh: I think even in a rigid or nonflexible organisation you’ve still got to work hard at these things and you’ve just got to work slightly differently with a flexible workforce. I don’t think it’s necessarily more difficult if you approach it the right way.

Barbara Henwood: Increasingly, when we’re interviewing people, they’re coming from flexible working environments, so it’s very much on their minds.

Suzanne Hughes: We’ve been talking today as if flexible working is like a reward, after you’ve earned your stripes and proved yourself to be a good employee. If you have a good employee, working flexibly, and they want to move to a new company, that view means that their flexible working arrangements are a barrier. Employers will be missing out on talent if they view a flexible working request from a new employee as something negative.

Karen McCormack: I’ve approached three recruitment agencies regarding a senior role and two of the agencies immediately enquired whether we would consider flexible working arrangements. They both sourced ‘ideal’ candidates who matched our requirements however the individuals’ preference was to work four days a week.

In trying to encourage flexibility you come up against inflexible situations such as that.

Rob Bull: I think that, we’re back to the original point, that HR managers are the managers of the precedents and that’s what we do otherwise there’s anarchy and unfairness and problems, so this becomes an issue.

Miranda Moncur: I think it depends whether, as you say culturally you build flexible working on trust, do you trust everyone first and apply flexible working from that point? We apply flexible working based on performance, because some organisations apply flexible working and then see if it breaks down. Arguably that wastes more management time, because then you have to manage them out of flexible working rather than into it.

As the workplace continues to change, what needs to be considered and factored in to manage the future needs and expectations of the business?

Andrew Walsh: People’s aspirations are changing, we all bank at three o’clock in the morning now and customers expect 24 hour service and that will determine flexibility in the workforce, and I think customers will actually drive it forward.

Suzanne Hughes: I absolutely agree with you and I think companies must look at it two ways. What can we do through working flexibly, to improve the service that we give to our customers? What flexible working arrangements can we make available to employees who want flexibility, without negatively impacting customer service?

Chris O’Riordan: Twenty-four hour operations have been around for ages. The reality is that employers do find people to work anti-social hours and some people actually like to work at those times.

Matt Wheeler: I think it’s interesting to hear again that a lot of the common themes coming out are concentrating on the way that businesses are developing and how the needs of businesses are changing. Aligning that to the kind of cultural shifts that we’re seeing, with expectations from employees, it’s just about not being frightened to recognise change and embrace that, as we move towards the future.

Read more Roundtable Reports – click here.

If you would like to sponsor a debate, please click here for more details.