Flexible Futures

I found out yesterday via Twitter (where else) that it is flexible working awareness day today. A subject I am passionate about, but something that many organisations still aren’t getting their head around, and for many a missed opportunity too.

Our history in the UK around flexible working started with rights for parents of young children, then went onto encompass carers and then finally, everyone. We have taken rights (and the associated process) initially designed for parents and then extended it to others, just like we have with maternity leave. It is a right only to request, and have that request duly considered.

There is a whole framework around it that goes something like this….. (which is my way of saying I haven’t read the Regs for a while). There is a service requirement before you can even ask.  Then there’s a formal request process, including stuff you are supposed to include in your letter.  There’s a time period for responding.  The right to appeal.  A whole prescribed list of reasons for which you can be turned down.

But it is all a little too processes driven… a little, well, inflexible.

We need to move past the parental rights and part time paradigms.

Because too often when we say flexible working we really mean (or think of) is part time working. But there is so much more to it than that.  Long term contractual changes and short term arrangements.  Term time, part time, compressed hours, reduced hours, flexi-time, home working, working outside the traditional 9-5, anywhere and anywhen.

But flexible working is one thing…. agility and choice something else entirely. For me, working flexibly doesn’t mean going through a process.  It means getting up on Monday and instead of driving to the office deciding to do the one minute to my home office.  It means being effective anywhere I have a wifi connection.  It means getting the job done without necessarily being present at a desk for the hours of work set down in my Contract of Employment.

When will we know we have achieved a more flexible approach to work?

Simple. When we don’t need the process.  When we don’t need to fill in a form and write a change to terms and conditions of employment.  When we don’t need to ask permission. When we can just do it.  When it is the norm.  When the job still gets done.  When we don’t need even more legislation.  When we finally recognise how much our people value it, how it will retain and engage them.

When it is simply, the way that we work every day.

Being truly flexible

I’ve recently seen some research about what employees really want at work when it comes to benefits.

Top of the list was flexible working.  Above and beyond those benefits that actually cost employers to provide like cars, or healthcare, or vouchers and the like, and all of those other things that we often offer or include in flexible benefits schemes.  What people (two thirds of those surveyed) wanted more than anything else, and more than employers were actually offering it, was flexibility.

For many of us, the Monday to Friday 9-5 is predominantly what we do and how we work.  The promise about work being something that we do rather than somewhere we go, simply hasn’t delivered.  Our working hours and practices are culturally hardwired.  Tradition.  But the thing about many traditions, is that when we step back and take a long, hard look, they aren’t really all that necessary or important or even sensible.  And we certainly wouldn’t invent them all over again if we started from new.

Here’s the thing.  Many flexible working arrangements cost the organisation precisely zero.  Not one single pound.  Nowt, as they say where I live.  Or at the very least, significantly less than the other reward and engagement activities that we are happy to spend our corporate cash on.

Compressed hours, reduced hours, changing when and where work is done, finishing early for the school run, travelling outside the rush hour, a day a week from home.  The investment required isn’t so much financial as it is an investment in a little bit of effort and a little bit of trust.  And of course, the willingness to try and step out of the old routine.

It is becoming clear that if you don’t offer flexible working, you are missing out on one of your biggest potential opportunities around retention, engagement and candidate attraction. And when I say ‘offer’ flexible working, let me be a little bit more specific.  I don’t mean doing the statutory minimum, and only saying yes to a mum returner if you can’t come up with a reason to say no.  I mean building it in to what you do, when the roles in question genuinely allow it.  Talking about it at the recruitment stage.  Making it part of your employment offering.  Welcoming the discussion from anyone.  Educating your managers on the benefits.  Challenging those who take a default no position.  No snarky comments.  No one feeling like they have to apologise for working differently.  Not only making flexible working possible but actively embracing it.

It appears that more people want flexibility than can get it, or feel like they can ask for it.  This means it is both an opportunity and a threat.  An opportunity to offer something truly valuable to your people, that will engage and retain and attract.  Or a threat, because if you can’t or won’t get flexible, then maybe they will go somewhere else that can and will.

Reasons to say no

Over the years, I’ve heard them all. Right back to 2002 when the legislation was first introduced. Reasons to say no to flexible working.

If I say yes to one, I’ll have to say yes to them all.
It’s not the sort of job where people can work flexibly.
It’s not the sort of company where people can work flexibly.
It’s not fair on the rest of the team.
It’s too difficult operationally.
We can’t offer it to every department so we shouldn’t do it for anyone else.
I won’t be able to manage the person effectively.
It will impact upon the customer.

These objections have common themes. Generality. Vagueness. Fixed positions. More about the manager than the employee. Short term thinking. Taking the easy option.

Because when it comes to the flexible working request, it can be easier to say no than to say yes.

The press help to perpetuate the myths. When the right to request flexible working was opened up to everyone earlier this year, the rarely balanced Daily Mail published an article suggesting that small businesses wouldn’t cope, and that those who simply wanted a regular lie in were now able to demand the working pattern of their choice. The entire economy was at serious risk. Probably.

Scratch the surface of the usual objections to flexible working, and underneath you may well find something else.

A lack of appreciation of the possible benefits, instead, focusing on the risks or the potential problems.
A misunderstanding of what fairness and equality is really all about. That a blanket no to everyone is somehow fairer than saying yes to a few.
Closed minds. Sticking to what has always been done, how things have always worked. A lack of understanding that what people want from work has changed, is changing.
Trust issues. Because they might not be working hard if no one is keeping an eye on them. Because it sounds like an excuse not to do much work.
Misconceptions. Flexible working is something that mums with young kids want. Isn’t it?
They simply can’t be bothered to deal with it.

Here’s the thing.

Flexible working isn’t a mum thing. It isn’t a carers thing. An approaching retirement thing. A working from home means watching the Jeremy Kyle show thing.

Flexible working is a talent thing. Attracting it, engaging it, keeping it.

It’s a valued benefit thing.

Because there is something else that I have noticed over the years about flexible working. How when you try it, the world doesn’t end. The company does not stop functioning. There are no riots. Profitability does not collapse, and neither does customer service. Very rarely do other employees resent it.

One request does however, often lead to another. And still, the world does not end.

So how about this as a challenge? No stereotypes. No knee jerk reactions. No outright rejections.

Instead, open minds. Genuine dialogue about what could work. Giving it a go. Trust.

One request at a time.

I sit at my desk, therefore I am.

Why do we persist on judging people on the amount of time they sit at their desk, rather than the contribution that they make? Presenteeism is alive and well in 2013.

You may have seen the recent research showing that a quarter of women feel that they have suffered discrimination or disadvantage at work when they have a child. Am I surprised by this? Sadly, no. Over the course of my HR career I have heard expressed many negative opinions of women, and men, taking time off for family reasons, that it would be hard to be so. I heard recently of an example where someone with a young child applied for, and was granted, a flexible working request. The employer said yes, but the person was subject to a wave of snarky comments from colleagues of the ‘it’s all right for some variety’. Why? Why do people assume that flexible working means taking it easy, sloping off, not pulling your weight, or working from home equates to watching the Jeremy Kyle show?

Technology now allows us to work anywhere, and any when. I am no longer defined by my desk, the 9-5.

Holding out for a hero

The presenteeism attitude is of course not just about flexible working or respecting people’s rights to find a life work balance. It’s about organisational culture; for so many organisations work must be seen to be done. A hero culture is created around those people that work long hours. They are committed, a good egg, a hard worker, the right stuff. A perception arises that long hours equals superhero, equals the right sort of performance.
The problem is compounded with it is the leaders of a business that are burning the midnight oil. The shadow casts long and wide, leading to the feeling that doing the same is expected.

In HR we talk about engagement, discretionary effort, getting our employees to go above and beyond. But we must not confuse this with working excessive hours. Being passionate about your job does not mean working until midnight.

Working excessive hours is not good for you. This isn’t my opinion; there is plenty of evidence to support it. Working excessive hours also isn’t good for productivity, good decision making…. I could go on. So here is my message to you. If you don’t take a break, take your holidays, but work till midnight, every weekend, never put down the Blackberry, you are quite simply not going to be performing at your best.

Reserve Judgement

If you feel you need to judge me, then do so based upon the results that I achieve. Not the hours I work to achieve them, the time that I sit behind my desk.

If you raise your eyebrows at me, think less of me, because one day I arrive at work at 9.15, then shall I expect you to chase me off home tomorrow at 5pm prompt? Will you pop over to my office to make sure I take my full lunch hour? I guess not.

If you email me at midnight, I won’t think you committed, a good corporate citizen, a hard working hero. I will think you have an issue that we should discuss.

Let us finally make the break the perceived link between performance and the hours people work.

It is 2013, after all.

All you need is trust

I’ve read with interest the recent debate about the Yahoo-ha about homeworking. I was going to write a blog on it, but everyone else got their first, so instead I got to thinking about my own attitude to and experience of homeworking.

I’ll start by sharing a great example of it. A few years ago one of my team had twin boys, meaning she had three children under three (brings me out in fear rash just thinking of it). Childcare costs meant returning to the 9-5, office environment was simply not feasible. So I just told her to work whenever she wanted. She works about 16 hours a week from home. I say ‘about’ as I have never checked. I know she details the hours she works in her calendar, but I can’t say I have ever looked at it. If I really wanted to, I guess I could ask IT to check the hours she is logged on, but I think that would say more about me than it would her. The only time I ever saw this particular member of the team was at the twice yearly performance appraisal. Other than that, we largely kept in touch by email. She often worked late in the evenings or on weekends; a complete and total flexible working arrangement. There is one key thing that made this arrangement work: trust.

Now I know many jobs need a physical presence and this example just wouldn’t work. But sweeping generalisations about what people do or don’t do when in an office or at home doesn’t work either.

The thinking about the future of work suggests that a number of trends such as globalisation, the desire to reduce carbon emissions combined with energy challenges, increasing technology, the cloud, emerging economies (I could go on) will lead to increased homeworking over the next few decades. Just saying you want everyone in the office won’t be an option if you want to engage and retain the best talent. On a practical level, the office environment just doesn’t work for some people; people need white space (term shamelessly stolen from Perry Timms) in which to think and create.

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

My natural tendency is to trust. I don’t need to be asked if you want to leave early because you are off to the dentist. I don’t need to know when you are off to lunch or when you will be back. You don’t need to rush into my office to explain why you are five minutes late and if you are not at your desk I’m going to assume you are doing something useful, interesting or work related. If I spot you in a coffee shop I’ll assume you needed to get out of the office to think. Want to work from home for the day? JFDI. Because I trust you. If this trust turns out to be misplaced, then I’ll deal with that.

All you need is trust. Give it a try.

I agree with Nick

I haven’t agreed with some of the employment initiatives coming from this government recently (the whole rights for shares thing nearly made me combust) however, today Nick Clegg signalled the intention to make key changes to two areas; extending the right to flexible working to all and secondly allowing greater opportunities for the sharing of parental leave.

It didn’t take long for some people to both highlight the practical and legal issues that might arise.  I have seen so far commentary on the impact on business, the pressure of the economic situation, administration challenges and the impact it might have on businesses hiring anyone in their 20s and 30s in case they take leave.  Presumably therefore they are just refusing to hire women right now – so that’s alright then.   Let’s face it, these tired arguments have been around for ever and always come out when changes are proposed to employment law.  They said businesses couldn’t afford the Equal Pay Act, the National Minimum wage, etc, and the economy carried on regardless, so forgive me for not paying too much attention to them. 

So, here’s why I wholeheartedly support the proposals.  The notion, supported by current maternity and paternity leave arrangements, that only women can / want to stay at home with a baby is hideously limiting and fails to take a proper account of the role of the father in the family.  It also does not recognise that the woman is the primary wage earner now in many families, and it may make more financial sense for the mother to return and the father take the leave.  Are there many women who will really want to return to work after two weeks when they are breastfeeding?  Maybe, or maybe not – but this is about giving them the choice which does not exist within the current maternity framework.   Families will now get to decide what works for their individual circumstances. 


With regard to flexible working, if I’ve read the speech correctly we are only talking about the right to request flexible working, and not as some media reports seem to have suggested, a right to receive.  All that is happening therefore is an extension of the existing regulations from those with childcare and caring responsibilities.  I’d argue that most enlightened employers do this anyway.  The benefits of working flexibly are well documented, both to individuals and employers.  It’s good for attracting and retaining talent, and is more aligned to the future of work.  The sooner flexible working is seen as something that is potentially desirable to all, and not just an irritant process requested after maternity leave, the better. 

The changes don’t appear to fit within the promise of a reduced burden of employment law that this government promised us.  For once, I don’t care. 

Nick Clegg didn’t give a definite time frame for introducing the changes.  I don’t think they can come soon enough.