The evolution of the definition of flexible working has dramatically changed in the past five years. Not only what it means, but also who has access to it.
Traditionally, flexible working arrangements were given as a benefit to ''high talented'' employees or for specific roles. However, with the rapid pace of digital transformation, flexible working is becoming the new normal.
Organizations have no other choice but to include it as part of their employee value proposition - with good reason. Companies that provide flexibility to employees have a competitive edge, at least that is what Bill Gates believes.
The competition to hire the best will increase in the years ahead. Companies that give extra flexibility to their employees will have the edge in this area.
Needless to say, he might know a thing or two when it comes to running a successful company.
What Flexible Working Actually Means
Organizations often make a mistake by defining flexible working arrangements according to strict policy - which goes against the aim of what is trying to be achieved. In fact, flexibility does not imply the same rule for everyone, but rather adapting it to meet the needs of the individual.
Each employee has a unique work-life balance schedule. Some employees live two hours away from work. Others are full-time students or have family responsibilities to take care of. Therefore, flexible working may need to be adapted to different circumstances.
Being prescriptive of how to manage flexibility will only lead to more frustration. Instead, the various types of flexibility should be appreciated in the workplace:
Remote working - being able to work from anywhere.
Work schedule - an employee choosing what time they would like to work according to when they are most productive.
Co-location - being able to select the office where you want to work from, and sometimes working from home.
Flexible work rules - an employee being ready to visit the doctor at 2 pm, and picking up work once they are at home.
Travel policy - being able to arrive earlier or later to work, dependent on the traffic to increase productivity and reduce wasted hours on the road.
Organizations should work on having policies around this to ensure good governance - but more importantly, developing an accountable organizational culture. In that way, there is a mature approach to flexible working without it feeling like a policing exercise.
Flexible Working in Numbers
96% - employees that said they need flexibility. Only 47% report to have the flexibility that they desire in the US.
72% - the number of professions that aspire for workplace flexibility according to the 2019 LinkedIn Global Talent Trends Report.
6% - the number of UK employees who report they are working a traditional 9 to 5 hours.
78% - the percentage increase in jobs that cite workplace flexibility as advertised on LinkedIn.
80% - the number of employees that rank workplace flexibility as the top perk.
The data tells a consistent story. Employees are demanding workplace flexibility as a priority. However, organizations are slow to react to the increasing demand. The gap between an employee’s desired flexible working arrangements versus reality is still wide.
Why Flexibility Matters Now More Than Ever
Work-life balance, which has slowly moved to "work-life integration" is not a feasible lifestyle choice for employees without flexibility. It has tremendous benefits:
Employee wellbeing - Allowing employees to structure their day may enable them to engage in physical activities more regularly. This means accessing the gym when 'it's not during peak hours, or being able to run early in the morning. Physical activity increases employee productivity and creativity.
Family life balance - An increase in flexibility allows employees to devote more quality time to their families. Parents are therefore able to attend their kid's sports matches or drama performance. Or perhaps take their siblings to the hospital. This helps reduce employee stress and increase attention when they are working
Workplace productivity - Flexibility significantly increases the output of employees. It's clear as daylight in the example of the employee who has to travel two hours in traffic to work in the morning. By being able to work productively from home, they can double their output and half their stress.
Challenges Preventing Flexible Working
Most organizations have well written flexible working policies in place. That is clearly not the problem. The underlying issue is organizational culture - i.e., what is the accepted norm of what it means to be productive.
The biggest barriers to flexible working lie in the company's organizational culture, not the policy.
An organization that has a 9 am to 7 pm culture as the “norm” would struggle to implement flexibility without changing the culture. Employees far too often say things such as “this how we do things “ or “this is how it has always been”. Any employee that dares to challenge the culture is immediately side-eyed or is the recipient of office banter.
It's clear that leadership in organizations need to be on board if any change is to be implemented. The moment you notice the boss leaving earlier, or actively encouraging workplace flexibility - that is when the change will take place.
Another challenge cited by organizations is the workplace tools to make flexible working arrangements effective. Workplace tools have made it possible to connect to databases remotely, and mobile devices have almost replaced laptops for fast communication. Studies have shown that it’s not the tools that are problematic - but rather learning agility.
New tools require a set of skills to be learned for it to be effectively used. As a result, learning agility becomes one of the key competencies for employees to develop to thrive in a flexible working environment.
So what now?
Flexible working arrangements have been defined, backed up with data and barriers identified. The big question now is how do you actually do it? There is no hard-wired way to implement it, but there are recommended guidelines:
Understand labor law - Whichever country you find yourself in, familiarize yourself with the country’s rules and regulations as it relates to flexible working arrangements.
Open lines of communication - Effective communication tools will be of great significance to drive the right culture. Review the tools your organization has to understand if it is suited for workers that are remote, working from home or during odd hours.
Line manager training - It’s important to train the leaders in your organization of how to run an effective workplace that is flexible. Not everyone will immediately understand what it means. Some may feel that they need to micromanage because of employees not being in place. Regularly in-class and informal training is recommended, both for line managers and employees.
Celebrate success, learn from mistakes - Allow employees to share stories of how flexible working arrangements have improved the quality of their lives and work output. The more employees share, the greater the momentum and success of such an initiative will be. Treat flexible working as an iterative process - some employees will take advantage of it. That does not imply it is not working - it may require a few tweaks and small improvements.
It's no longer an option for organizations.
Flexibility used to be one of those ''nice to have''. It is now the only way organizations can survive if they are to remain competitive in the marketplace. Employees are willing to take pay cuts in exchange for better work schedules.
Performance management metrics have become so advanced, which has led to output- driven way of measuring success. It's no longer how much time you have spent working, but rather what you can achieve.
The unintended consequence of a rigid work schedule is a high turnover, a decrease in employee motivation, and workplace absenteeism. Flexible working is the new normal and will be for the foreseeable future.
Saadiq Samodien is a full-time storyteller, with a passion for helping people be more productive and the future of work.