5 Elements of a Flexible Workplace

Today I’m speaking at the CIPD / ACAS flexible working conference. I’m going to be sharing what I believe are the five, key elements of a flexible workplace.

Together, these elements will lead to a culture where flexibility is truly embraced for the benefit of employees and the organisation alike.

1              Flexibility for all (or as many as possible)

When I say flexibility for all, I recognise that there are some jobs where introducing more flexibility is easy – in theory at least. There are of course some jobs where it is more challenging if not impossible, such as those where a physical presence is required at set times.  But with creativity and open minds, flexibility is often much more feasible than it first might seem – or some believe.  Too often, the stereotype of someone wanting flexible working is a mum returning from maternity leave, or a new parent.  This stereotype is extremely limiting.

Flexibility is about inclusion at its widest sense. It is about tackling the gender pay gap.  Despite what I have said about us challenging the stereotype, we also know that many parents want flexible working – and this includes senior roles. Less than 10% of quality  jobs are advertised as flexible.  If we want true representation throughout our organisations, then we need flexibility throughout the hierarchy.

Because employees want flexibility and that demand is not matched with supply, this makes flexibility a talent issue both in terms of acquiring it and retaining it. A survey by HR Magazine in 2013 showed that a third of people would take more flexibility over a 3% pay rise.  If you offer people the flexibility to work how they want and when they need, this is a clear retention strategy.

Flexibility is also a wellbeing issue – the stress of long, difficult commutes takes a toll on work life balance.  This isn’t about parents, this is about everyone. Flexible working can also open up our workplaces to staff with disabilities.

2              Acceptance of flexibility in all its forms

Flexibility doesn’t just mean working part time or working from home one day a week. It isn’t a family friend benefit.

Work can be flexible in time and place. Where and when the work is done.

There can also be flexibility in the how.

We don’t have to work in an office, we can work wherever we are inspired.  The park, the library, a co-working space, a coffee shop.  Where the role permits, we can organise our own work.  Use different technologies to complete it.

3              High Trust

For flexibility to really work, you need trust.

There is no place for the belief that if you can’t see someone doing their stuff then you can’t manage their work. If you have to have someone in your eye line to make sure they do their work, you’ve got bigger cultural issues to address.

You have to trust the people you work with, unless you have a very good reason not to.

But many organisations are riddled with blame, arse covering, and presenteeism. All too often we reward the latter.  It is seen as commitment and graft.

Whenever I have introduced flexible working the issue of trust has come up in a roundabout way. Usually through the questions about how people will be managed and measured.  My answer is often flippant.  Manage them on output, not time at the coalface.  Desk time and productivity do not go hand in hand.

enabler 2

4              Enabling and supportive managers and leaders

Managers who understand the benefits – and that they exist for both parties.

Managers who get that flexibility is a talent issue, an engagement issue, a wellbeing issue.

Managers who recognise that flexibility will help them keep good people.

Managers who don’t see flexibility as a pain in the ass to be managed and seek reasons to say no, but see it as an opportunity.

A senior leadership team that does the same.

Managers who are open minded to try stuff.

Managers who work flexibly themselves.

Managers who don’t search for barriers that don’t exist, or bring their personal opinions to the table.

Managers that are trained.

5              Good Policy

A good flexible working policy is one where there’s no gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

Good policy isn’t a document that explains how to say no, but encourages innovation, working together to find solutions, experimentation.

Good policy goes beyond the statutory minimum.

There is stuff around the policy like guidance and good advice on how to implement and trial new ways of working.

A good policy is one that easy to read and understand, and there’s a place or a person for more questions.

A good policy has an encouraging, welcoming tone.

Together, these elements will create a culture in which flexible working and flexibility can thrive for the good of both people and organisations alike.

Together, our challenge is to create them.  And there has never been a greater need for us to do it. 

 

5 steps to managing in a heat wave

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It’s hot. You might have noticed.  Unusual weather often provokes a range of advice on how to manage people, just in case common sense fails along with the air-conditioning.

  1. Tear up your dress code if you have one. Replace it with a notice that says ‘no swimwear’ and be done with it.
  2. Give all your staff free ice-cream. Fancy employee engagement strategies can work well, but in my experience food always works better.
  3. Be flexible. Commuting is mostly horrible in the heat, especially for those who use public transport BO boxes. Strongly consider allowing people to work from home or commute outside the sweat hour.
  4. Have outdoor meetings (sunscreen is advisable). No one says you have to sit indoors in a hot, airless office in order to get stuff done.  Better still, have your meeting in a pub beer garden (should there be no health and safety implications of course).
  5. Enjoy it. It will probably be raining this time next week.

 

Workplace

I first became interested in the idea of the influence of the workplace itself on feelings about work when I read ‘A Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline, a book that has had a continued influence on my practice as a HR professional.

Kline is of course focusing on place in this context as a space that can, or cannot, influence great thinking. She says that it not just about appearance.  There are some places in which it is hard to think, some places which almost invite good thinking.  She argues that a workplace can reflect back to people; ‘you matter’.  In the book, the chapter dedicated to this particular issue concludes with a question (or perhaps a challenge); ‘what would you have to change about your work space, or even your home, for it to say back to you, ‘you matter’.

This book prompted me to make some changes in a former organisation. I worked in what can best be described as tired.  It has suffered greatly from a lack of maintenance.  At some time in the past, someone had made some terrible decisions around the practical stuff.  The carpet was grey.  The walls were grey.  The filing cabinets, of which there were many and many, were also grey.  Many workstations lacked natural light.  Meeting rooms either boiled or froze.  The furniture was old.  The basics were poor; the toilets, the food provision, the car parking.  No one really seemed to care.  How was that relevant to hitting the financial goals?

I inherited a training room. It was the place that old furniture had gone to die.  Two tables, different in colour and height.  Eight chairs, each a relic from an bygone age.  Broken blinds.  Dirty cream walls, old blue tac marks creating a greasy dot to dot for anyone so inclined.  This was not a place that said ‘you matter’.  It was the funeral of ambition.  It was not a place that leant itself to thinking, to learning, to spending time lingering or talking.

It was a place that said we don’t care much at all.  You don’t matter, and neither does your learning.

So I changed it. I persuaded our facilities team to paint the walls a calming blue. I had the furniture tossed into a skip.  I used my meagre training and development budget to order some new furniture.  Instead of the usual office stuff we went for sofas and comfy chairs.  There were cushions and a coffee machine.  New blinds and fresh water.  The day that the Ikea delivery van arrived, some eyes rolled.  It was that girl in HR again.  I was lucky enough to have a boss that believed in me and the decisions that I made, so I carried on regardless.

It didn’t involve much effort. It cost less than a £1000.  But I believe we created a space that whispered softly to our people, ‘you matter’.

So it is with this backdrop I eagerly awaited the book ‘The Elemental Workplace’ by my Twitter friend Neil Usher, who is also, in my humble opinion, one of the best bloggers out there, writing about this work stuff.  When it landed on my doormat I dove straight in and I was not disappointed.  His usual sharp sense of humour is present throughout, along with his evidently deep knowledge of his subject matter.  I love the book because it is practical.  You don’t have to be building a new office building right from the plans.  You don’t have to have a huge budget. There is always something we can do to create a better place of work for the people that move within it in the every day.

It feels to me that in the ongoing discussions about human resources and employee engagement and better work, this is a piece that we too often miss. We instead focus on leadership and management, and reward and recognition, wellbeing and corporate social responsibility and so and so on.  We survey our people to assess their percentage of engagement, if there is even such a thing.  We ask if they understand the vision, if their manager makes them feel valued, if they have a useful performance review – but do we ask them if their chair works or they can access fresh air or if they are within reasonable distance of a water machine or if they can control the temperature in their office?  Do we create a place that says ‘you matter’ for our people?  Do we even think about it when designing our people strategy and our annual operational plans?

You can buy Neil’s book here.  If you work in HR, if you are a leader in an organisation, you really should.*   If we really believe our people matter, this stuff matters too.

 

Neil did not pay me to write this blog post. He should however be aware that he can buy me Prosecco if his sales go up as a result.

Choice and Trust.

You know when you read something and just say….

Yes. This.

This is what I really meant in all of those posts I have written about flexible working.

This is the thing.

My morning commute today was spent reading an ACAS Research Paper (yes I really am that geeky). Flexible working for parents returning to work: maintaining career development.  You can find the full report here. It is well worth a read if you are interested in the subject.

There are a few sentences that stood out. If you don’t have time to read the full 32 pages, here they are.

Flexibility is about choice: choice about how to deliver against contractual commitments whilst we balance all the parts of our lives. Choice is core to intrinsic motivation and therefore emotional engagement.

At the heart of success lies trust. Trust that flexible working really can be good for business; trust in the employee to do the right thing in getting the work done regardless of the particular hours that they work or their location and trust that a flexible worker is as committed, productive and worthy of career development as their more traditionally working colleague

There is really nothing more to be said.

Apart from of course, how we make businesses understand this truth.

Time for a menopause policy?

I’m doing some policy work at the moment.

A little while ago the question arose…. Should we have a policy on the menopause at work?

My immediate response, fuelled by a general dislike of having a policy for everything, was…. no. Why would we need one?

And then I educated myself a little bit more.

It’s an area that is getting increasing focus from government, trade unions and organisations. You can find a recent publication here.

Here is what I now know.

Women are working later in life than they did in the past.

If we take the typical age that women experience the menopause, over 4m could be working through this life transition in the UK.

For some women, the symptoms can be severe and debilitating. There’s various research, but around 10-15% of women experience very severe symptoms.

Symptoms vary – but many can impact upon work either practically or in terms of confidence.

At the same time, for many women, it’s hard to talk about their menopause in the workplace – especially to male, younger managers.

Some women find coping strategies. Others opt to hide their symptoms.

Women are concerned about how they will be perceived if they talk about it. Some research points to discrimination and inappropriate comments and banter (otherwise known has harassment) about the menopause.

More research pointed to the increased likelihood of negative reactions in male dominated environments – making women even less likely to speak out.

We’ve seen the matter of the menopause in the employment tribunal too. The leading case involves a women being dismissed for performance, which she alleged was as a result of her menopause and associated health conditions.  The dismissing (male) manager made no attempt to verify this with Occupation Health, and instead based his decision on the (non severe) menopause experiences of his wife and HR advisor……. I’ll just leave that there.

On my commute today I saw a poll on Twitter, asking if women should get ‘menopause leave’. The evidence is clear that menopause is an experience that differs significantly from woman to woman.  So a one stop shop piece of legislation or ‘right to request time off’ isn’t the answer.

Small changes are sometimes all that is needed. If you provide uniform, making sure it’s made of natural fibres, or providing more than normal so that women can change at work.  Small adjustments to working hours or breaks for women who are experiencing sleep problems or fatigue.  Ventilation, fans and access to cold drinking water or changing facilities.

Above all, like with most people stuff, it is about dialogue.  Creating the conditions where conversations are safe, people feel like they can raise the difficult stuff and reach out for the support that they really need.

I’m still in the ‘no’ camp on a policy. But a little more awareness, guidance and support where it is needed?  Very definitely yes.

Carewash

I am a big believer in employee wellbeing.

But there’s wellbeing, and there’s wellbeing.

A spectrum. At once end there’s a statement on the corporate website saying that the health and wellbeing of employees is very important to us. Etc.  At the other end, a wellbeing strategy, integrated into the whole of the people agenda.

It’s the occasional bit of free fruit versus employee benefits that enable health.

Managing absence versus supporting attendance.

Too often, what passes as employee wellbeing is just carewash.

Statements without substance.

Token gestures.

Individual, one off wellbeing events can make a difference.  They can send a signal, or start a journey.

A half day of health checks at a place I once worked led to an employee being diagnosed with a previously unknown and potentially life threatening medical condition. (Thank you Andy Romero-Birkbeck).

Of course, not everyone has the budget or resource to do wellbeing well. In which case, a little something is always better than nothing at all.

So do what you can – but only if you mean it.

Employees can spot empty gestures from a great distance.

For wellbeing to really make a difference the case for it needs to be widely understood and accepted. It needs a strategy.  It needs to be integrated in everything that you do.

Consider how, in the public sector, we assess the impact of policies, procedures, changes and initiatives on equality and diversity. If we want to make wellbeing make a difference, for it to be taken seriously and made a priority, then a similar approach is required.

Considering formally and with structure, what would add to wellbeing and what would detract from it. How any negative impacts can be mitigated.  That work stuff that you do – how does it impact upon the physical and mental health of the people that work for you? And then what can you do about it?

If you are serious about it, of course.

Because you are spending more time telling people you do wellbeing than you spend actually doing wellbeing, then you don’t really mean it.  If you have a wellbeing programme because everyone else has one, or if you are doing wellbeing because it is good for your employer brand, then maybe this isn’t genuine wellbeing at all.

Maybe what you have got instead, is carewash.

All the policy that is fit to print

I am spending a whole lot of time at the moment writing people policy. It’s one of the main areas of focus for my interim work.

On people policies, I so often hear the same complaint:

The policy doesn’t work.

Of course sometimes this means something else. I don’t like this policy.  Enforcing this policy isn’t my job. I don’t want to have this conversation.

 

Here is what I know about people policy:

You can write whatever you like .

You can agree approaches with your trade unions or employee forums.

You can establish a tone of voice and a format. You can make the language inclusive.

You can place responsibilities wherever you wish.

You can produce accompanying guidance notes and toolkits and flowcharts.

You can introduce all of the above with great internal communication and mandatory training.

You can consider the impact on equality and diversity.

You can follow all of the best practice.

 

But so what?

Documents don’t change stuff. People do.

 

Policies can fall down in the drafting. Documents written in the abstract, following what is the so-called best approach rather than what is right for the context. Only in my experience, that’s rarely the issue.  When companies tell me that they have a problem with their policies, often isn’t the policy itself that is the problem, it is the application – and the lack of consequences.

The problem is not in the drafting but the doing.

If your absence policy says return to work interviews are compulsory but no one does them, is the policy wrong or the manager who doesn’t bother?

If probation reviews are seen as vital, but you don’t actually monitor completion and the only time they take place is when someone is underperforming, where does the fault lie?

Are there any consequences for ignoring the policy? Does anyone care?

I will always favour people doing people stuff because it is the right thing not the told to do it by HR thing. I don’t want HR to be about compliance.

But…..

Policies are targeted at employees.  What they can do and what they can’t.  Sanctions. Responsibilities. Requirements.

The question arises…..

Who manages the managers?

You can have all of the policies that are fit to print, but what matters is that documents come alive. That they make the transition from paper to real life action.

HR can listen, draft, consult, support, guide, teach.

But ultimately it’s the people manager that make this stuff happen, in the every day.  And if they are not, the response shouldn’t be to change the policy or produce more checklists, flowcharts and scripts.

Its about skills – and accountability.