Flexible working

Globalisation,
the changing nature of work and the 24-hour economy means that new ways of
working will become an imperative of successful business life. And while
flexible working is not just an HR issue, the function will be in the Vanguard
of the change. But first there are significant cultural and managerial barriers
to overcome. Our report, which begins with research findings, will equip you
with the skills and knowledge you need to make the leap

How
UK attitudes compare with the US

Overcoming
the barriers to introducing flexible working: a practical guide

Time to flex: start of a new
monthly column on flexible working

What
the government needs to do to encourage employers to adopt flexible working

Case
studies of three organisations which have successfully implemented flexible
working

Human
resources professionals are caught between a rock and a hard place on the issue
of flexible working, according to a new survey, Change. What Change? Employer
Views on Flexibility, compiled by flexible work specialist The Resource
Connection.

On
the one hand, HR professionals concede that the business case for a more
flexible approach to work has already been won. Most acknowledge that it would
improve productivity and performance, help attract more talented people, reduce
absenteeism and employee turnover, and restore a better balance between the
home and working environments. Moreover, most believe that the revolution is
unstoppable: more flexible working patterns will eventually become the norm.
The technology is now in place to support such a move and – perhaps more
importantly – it is clear that employees both want and need greater freedom in
their working lives.

Yet
there is a log-jam. To date, few organisations have committed to a more
flexible approach to employment, and most continue to claim there are
significant cultural and managerial barriers combining to prevent them from
making the leap. There is also widespread concern among HR professionals that
they do not have the necessary skills in place to support such a move fully.

The
report’s authors insist that none of these barriers is insurmountable, and they
take the argument further. Companies operating in the new economy,
characterised by fluid working relationships between hitherto distinct organisations,
will need to learn the art of remote management if they are to remain
competitive – indeed it could be argued that their very survival will depend
upon it.

As
co-author John Knell, head of research at the Industrial Society, concludes,
"Many of the skills HR managers need to develop to manage flexible working
are the same as those required for the futuristic, networked economy."
When it comes to making a start, there’s no place like home to begin the work.

78%
of HR professionals believe flexible work programmes bring competitive
advantage

"People
intuitively know that flexible working will enable them to hold onto people and
increase productivity," says Carol Savage, managing director of The
Resource Connection. Eighty-eight per cent of those canvassed believe that
organisations which offer flexible work are more attractive to employees, and a
similarly high figure (87 per cent) agree that working long hours does not make
people more effective – indeed, more than half claimed that long hours were leading
to employees showing signs of stress.

The
survey also overwhelmingly demonstrated the belief that organisations going
down this route would enjoy improved morale and motivation among staff, as well
as greater loyalty and commitment. "They recognise there’s a limit to how
much you can offer in terms of salary and title when skilled people are looking
for something else," says Savage. Sixty-four per cent of respondents
agreed that certain tasks would be achieved more productively if undertaken outside
the office, and a similar number believed that the Internet and e-commerce are
moulding a new type of flexible worker.

"I
am positive that people recognise the need for it, and really understand the
benefits which it will bring to the organisation. But the difficulty comes in
proving financial benefits," says Savage. "We need to put flexibility
on the balance sheet, to measure the improved productivity and employee
retention so you can go to the board and say, ‘This is a commercial thing’.
Personnel people are the ones who should be driving it."

Knell
at the Industrial Society agrees: "HR managers need new drivers and
quality information to win the argument at board level. This is not a soft
issue; it’s a hard one, directly linked to business strategy and needs. Often
when people talk about enhancing flexibility, they focus on the cost of
implementation, or the benefits it would bring to individuals. They rarely
focus on how beneficial flexibility would be to the whole organisation, yet
this is a compelling argument. Flexible working must feature more prominently
in companies’ balanced scorecards so its progress can be measured."

66%
of employers are experiencing an increased demand for flexible work

Yet
the overwhelming number of respondents (69 per cent) have no policy on flexible
work, demonstrating a considerable gap between the organisation’s behaviour and
the views of its employees. "That didn’t surprise me," says Savage.
"We have so many highly qualified, talented people on our database who
want to work three or four days a week. My challenge is to convince people they
are worth employing. But really it’s like pushing water uphill to get people to
do something that they know is beneficial."

On
a more positive note, there are signs of green shoots beginning to emerge: 76
per cent of those canvassed claimed their company has experimented with ad hoc
examples of flexible working practices.

But
something is clearly going wrong in those companies which have implemented
formal policies, because take-up is not high. "Less than 10 per cent of
employees took up the option when it was available," says Savage.

It
is a statistic which might demonstrate that flexible working is still not
considered a viable option for those employees who wish to be considered
"committed" workers – although 81 per cent of those canvassed
insisted that flexible workers gave the same commitment.

This
was echoed by the views of the survey’s respondents, 60 per cent of whom
claimed that not all roles could be carried out on a flexible basis.

According
to Knell, many of the HR managers canvassed, while quick to blame those in
senior management for continuing cultural barriers to the change, nonetheless
manifested "classically antediluvian" attitudes to the practice
themselves. While 55 per cent claimed that senior employees were not
championing the issue, a similar percentage claimed it was
"acceptable" for men to work flexibly, and a high percentage claimed
it was appropriate only for junior members of staff.

But
this contrasts strongly with what middle managers of both sexes say they would
actually like. In two previous surveys canvassing male and female line
managers, The Resource Connection found that 93 per cent of women and 81 per
cent of men wanted a more flexible working environment. Unsurprisingly,
however, these groups felt they would be penalised for making the move in terms
of lower pay, fewer promotional opportunities and less interesting and
challenging roles.

"If
flexible working is going to work it has to be taken up by everyone. It needs
to be created across all genders and at all management levels," says
Savage. "A lot of men in the focus groups we spoke to were happy to
continue working 40-50 hours a week, but they wanted to restructure their time
so they could spend more time with their children."

There
are examples of flexibility being implemented to good effect at a senior level,
she adds. A case in point is an ad hoc project at Barclays Bank where a senior
management team has embarked on a job-sharing project.

"Every
role can be done on a flexible basis. If you understand the components of the
job there are ways of bringing it through. Companies are now operating in a
global environment, frequently offering customer service on a 24-hour,
seven-day basis. There is no reason why you have to work between 8am and 6pm to
hold down a full-time job."

But
she concedes that many senior male managers might be loath to make the move
"because they are defined by their working environment. If they worked
more flexibly they might feel the pressure to get more stuck in at home. And
companies are making it far more enjoyable to work at home, so why should they
lead by example?"

Cary
Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Umist agrees: "Men are less
keen because their identity is totally involved with work. They’re frightened
of leaving the politics, they think it means they’ll be totally out of the
loop. That’s a big inhibitor for men. If you have workaholics at the top,
everyone’s going to follow suit.

"Organisational
politics is a real issue. People in managerial jobs want to be where the action
is. A lot of managers don’t model flexible working for themselves," he
says.

Moreover,
Prof Cooper believes that just because men say they want to work more flexibly,
it doesn’t follow they necessarily mean it: "I think there are a large
number with the outward facade of ‘new men’, but underneath they’re actually
still cavemen. They think flexible working would mean they’d have to play a
larger role at home, and many men still don’t want to do this."

79%
of respondents believe that flexible working is open to abuse

This
was one of the leading disadvantages of flexible working cited by survey
respondents: "Lack of trust is a real inhibitor," says Prof Cooper.
"Managers are asking: if we allow them to work from home, will they do it
or will they skive? Managers like to have empires – and they like to see that
empire in front of them. They don’t like to manage virtually because they don’t
think it has the same status."

One
problem companies face when overcoming this issue is that, despite a clear
commitment that work should be measured by results (rather than hours worked or
company status), only 5 per cent claimed they have put in place
performance-related pay structures. "HR managers are blinkered on this
issue," says Savage.

"How
do they know that people coming into the office aren’t sitting around all day
playing computer games." Indeed, in an apparent contradiction, the survey
shows that HR professionals believe that, on the whole, flexible workers are
actually more committed to their jobs and work more than pro-rata.

Other
perceived disadvantages of flexible working included a feeling that it would be
difficult to create a system that was fair to all – although most disagreed
with the concept that everyone would want the same time off and that flexible
policies would increase discrimination. Respondents also dismissed claims that
there would be loss of internal competition and camaraderie.

49%
believe that flexible working is difficult to manage

"There
is an attitude among HR people that ‘because I don’t have the skills, I won’t
do it," says Knell – citing the statistic that 75 per cent of respondents believed
they would have to go outside the organisation to pick up these skills.
"There’s an acknowledgement that there are challenges." Typical of
these are: how do you develop a rewards-based culture? How do you manage
virtual teams? How do you assure continuity and commitment? But none of these
barriers are insurmountable.

Sticking
to current work patterns there’s no hassle with systems and contracts, so it’s
much easier to say, ‘right we’ll stick with the usual 48 week year’", says
Savage. "There’s a perception that with flexible working there’s too much
to do. People wonder if it’s going to be an administrative nightmare."

Prof
Cooper agrees that, given the evidence that managers don’t set objectives and
measure outcomes adequately under existing arrangements, monitoring people
working at a distance is likely to be a substantial challenge. "We don’t
know how to work from home: how to manage the time, how to manage the
environment, how to deal with technical failure, how we get the training. So
there’s a long learning curve."

That
said, Knell points to strong evidence in the survey that HR managers understand
some of the first steps that need to be taken. "There was a remarkably
strong consensus on this: nearly the whole sample understood that it was important
to have in place effective communication systems." And most respondents
cited the importance of adequate training, a focus on time management, and a
sharing of responsibility: Over 90 per cent agreed that management teams had to
be strong throughout and not rely on one key member.

30%
of organisations adopting flexible working piloted the scheme before they
rolled out the programme

"Ideally
this figure should have been higher," says Knell – particularly given the
absence of an external benchmark through which companies can validate their
progress. Too many organisations, he adds, make the mistake of imposing the
policy as a top-down imposition. "Don’t put in flexible packages without
including input from staff: use their expertise and they’ll buy into the
scheme."

US votes for flexibility

• Although the Government has shown its commitment to the introduction of
more flexible work patterns through a variety of new measures, many believe
that they continue to lack teeth. Typical of these is the Parental Leave
provision, which was incorporated into the recent Employment Rights Act.
Although this guaranteed fathers – as well as mothers – the right to 12 weeks’
leave to attend to family matters, uptake is expected to be poor because the
leave is unpaid.

Helen Froud, director of corporate services at Worcestershire County
Council, claims her research into similar developments in the US gives the lie
to this assumption. "The Parental Leave directive, as incorporated into UK
law, compares with the US Family & Medical Leave Act of 1993," she
says.

When the provision was first introduced into the US, attitudes to it were
similar to those prevailing in the UK now. But time and changing mores have
changed all that.

Froud found that growing numbers of US employees are signing up for the
leave, whether paid or otherwise. Indeed, in a bid to make themselves more
attractive to employees, 13 per cent of US companies chose to pay for the leave
voluntarily. In an in-depth study of AT&T, Froud found that while only one
in 400 employees signed up for the leave when it was first introduced, that
figure now stands at one in 18 – a substantial shift in a comparatively short
time-span.

"This points to a developing trend in HR practice and society at large
that it is more and more acceptable for both parents to take time off to care
for their children," she says. "It often makes economic sense: in 20
per cent of households where both parents work, the male partner earns less
than the female.

"In my personal view the Parental Leave directive marks the beginning
of a social revolution. People will look back at this moment as the time that
Britain first began to be concerned about what impact employment is having on
families and society as a whole," she adds.

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