How to make flexible working bend to your business needs

Tuesday, 07 May 2019

The rise of flexible working is nothing short of a modern phenomenon. Technology – namely smartphones, laptops and 4G connectivity – has transformed today’s average workplace by enabling greater mobility and flexibility than ever before. The days of shackling employees to a single desk between the hours of 9am and 5pm appear to be numbered, and for good reason.

Many experts agree that working flexibly holds huge potential for businesses looking to drive higher levels of performance and productivity – and employers are clearly acting on this knowledge. A recent global study of 2,000 employees and managers led by Future Workplace and Virgin Pulse found that one third of people now work remotely on a regular basis. In fact, so many workers now work flexibly that the total number of remote workers has increased by 115% over the past decade.

However, for companies that have yet to establish their own flexible working policies, there are naturally a number of questions (and perhaps doubts) about doing so. More than that, can it be certain that offering a flexible working policy will benefit the business, or is even right for every firm?

As with any new initiative the first step is to understand the impact of trying a new working pattern could have for both the business and the people who keep it running.

This goes far beyond work-life balance; in fact, there's a mounting body of research into the productive benefits fuelled by remote working.

One of the primary studies led by Stanford University detailed a range of key outcomes associated with working from home. The research – based on a case study involving China’s largest travel agency – found that employees who worked at home were 13.5% more productive than those who worked in the office, and a further 93% more engaged. Remote workers also had far better attrition rates, took fewer sick days, and reported higher job satisfaction overall.

“People save time and money on their daily commute and significantly reduce their carbon footprint,” adds Brie Reynolds, Senior Career Specialist at FlexJobs, a jobs board for flexible, part-time and freelance opportunities. “They are able to spend more time with their families, they're less stressed, they avoid office politics and, as the latest research suggests, they're actually more productive than when they work from the office.

“For some, having a job they can do from home means the difference between working or not working. This is particularly the case for people with disabilities or health issues, military spouses, stay-at-home parents, caregivers, people who live in economically disadvantaged or rural areas, and others.”

Striking the right balance

Whilst the benefits of flexible working are increasingly well-documented, it’s perhaps easy to forget the clear advantages associated with traditional office-based work. Tony Vickers-Byrne, Chief Adviser for HR Practice at CIPD, argues that the key is striking the right balance between the home and the office:

“The way forward is to allow employees to balance their remote working with the undoubted benefits that regular interaction with colleagues generates for both the individual and the organisation. People clearly benefit from the independence, autonomy and reduced travel of remote working but they certainly lose out on face-time with their team.

“We need regular social interaction for our wellbeing and development. Provided that the offer is personalised, a range of flexible working options will attract and retain diverse talent (including at senior levels), improve job satisfaction, loyalty and performance, support wellbeing and make the organisation more agile and responsive to the inevitable future change.”

Establishing a clear policy

Clarity is key for businesses looking to embed working from home as part of their culture. In addition to natural discussion in company or one-to-one meetings, written protocol removes any confusion among existing staff by laying out the terms in black and white. For new recruits, the option (or requirement) to work from home should be first clarified as part of the onboarding process.

“Casual policies allowing remote work as-needed or with manager approval may seem like an easy way to test work-life options, but that approach can ultimately backfire,” agrees Brie Reynolds of FlexJobs. “Employees get confused about what options they have, managers find it difficult to stay on top of everything, and people often perceive unfairness, enabling jealousies to start.”

It’s also essential to have a strong digital infrastructure in place. Online file storage systems like OneDrive and Google Drive allow employees to easily collaborate, share documents and synchronise their work in real time. And whilst lack of face-to-face contact can be an issue given the nature of some roles, modern technology certainly allows for ease of communication in multiple ways – whether that’s sending a quick message on cloud-based messengers such as Slack or arranging a formal Skype meeting.

Of course, the exact terms of the policy must vary from business to business; but only by formalising and promoting flexible working as a company benefit can employers begin to reap the associated gains in engagement, retention and productivity. That much is true for all.

Source: Daniel Jones, HR Grapevine