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Matt Dean

Byrne Dean Associates


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Blog: Working Families Conference – How to achieve true flexible working


Matt Dean facilitated a very interesting discussion at the Working Families Conference on 25 September. 

We posed the following four questions:

  1.  “Can we honestly say that we have created ‘flexible career paths’ (and what is stopping us)?”
  2. “Why do jobs have to take 60 hours (particularly in the current economic climate)?”
  3.  “How can business alter its values to make it ‘a society that works for everyone’?”
  4. “How can we nurture [perhaps ‘husband’] women’s ambition and persuade them to stay in the organisation?”
Nine central ideas were discussed:
1. Career paths don’t really exist
Careers are not linear, there is not really a ‘path’; more a labyrinth, a lattice, a matrix of opportunities. Workers want to move at different speeds at different times. One size does not fit all. We probably need to re-examine the definition of ‘career’ (and of who is responsible for it).
Critically, the employee does not actually know what s/he is going to need or want in the future. Nor does the employer know what it is going to need or want (in terms of detailed resource planning at least)! Flexibility can be seen as a voyage of co-discovery [between the employer and the workers].
Workers should be encouraged to adopt a less individualistic approach – it’s about co-operation and responsibility. Employers should ensure that flexibility is on offer, not hidden or seen as something for particular groups of workers. Barriers need to be removed and permissions need to be given expressly.
At various points in the discussion the importance of listening to what individuals want (now) and trying to accommodate their need for flexibility was stressed. This is different to slavishly adhering to policy.

2. But the perception of the ‘career path’ is alive, well and impacting on people (and it’s traditionally male)
Careers are still viewed by many as following a traditionally ‘male’ template. And one that does not recognise the ageing population. If we are working till we are 70, what is peaking at 35 or 40 all about?
The career path template’s upward trajectory assumes that people are interested in promotion and advancement. This may not be the case. Should someone be penalised for lacking such ‘ambition’ or should the central focus be on the quality of the job that they are performing, rather than their career aspirations?
Society is changing and organisations must adapt to that change. The family is also changing. Men and women’s roles are changing; they are demanding more flexibility (in contexts where they perceive that to do so is allowed), many feel they need to have an excuse for requesting flexibility (that pregnancy and motherhood provides to women). And frequently they are no longer the major earner in their relationship.
Do managers and leaders confuse hours worked and availability with notions of ambition and commitment because of the notion of a traditional career path?

3. Focus on jobs not careers, output and relationships not input/effort
The critical mindset change for leaders and managers involves shedding the notion of the traditional career template and focussing day-to-day solely on output and relationships for everyone. This will be extremely difficult for the majority of managers and leaders to deliver.
And the focus needs to be on traditionally ‘sticky’ middle management. Hours worked and traditional displays of commitment are the simplest thing to measure. They are also intrinsically linked to a sense of fairness.
Ask yourself what should happen if a worker delivers an excellent result on their major objective in significantly less time than a colleague?

4. ‘Choice’ and ‘control’ are key
Whether or not they are working flexibly, if workers feel they have choice and control over their work, engagement follows. Employment or career problems typically arise when workers feel they have no choice or are unable to control the way they work.
Employers need to ensure that workers understand what is on offer to them and are explicitly given permission to request it. That permission needs to be actively delivered to individual workers by someone they trust in order for them to feel that they have genuine choice.
An important part of the managers’ tool kit should be recognising the importance of choice and control. Organisations are starting proactively to approach all of their workforce to ask what flexibility would you like in your role?
One way of bringing about real change would be the use of targets for flexible workers in each department or area.

5. There is no substitute for individuals feeling valued and included
Offering flexibility and delivering permission to request it is only part of engaging and retaining individuals.
Many organisations are making concerted efforts to ensure that particular groups of individuals (typically women) are properly supported and have opportunities to progress and to feel valued through the use of structured offers made to those groups (e.g. of coaching or sponsorship, helping them to recognise their strengths or to deal with life stages or transitions).
Encouraging the recipients of such support to speak to their mentor if they are considering leaving in order to afford the organisation the opportunity to remedy any problems can be part of this offer. What (apart from resources) is stopping these offers from being made to all workers?
6. Businesses need authentic leaders whose values and behaviours are aligned to those of their workers
When discussing organisational change in relation to flexibility, all roads lead to a need for authentic senior leaders; people who believe in the need for flexibility and whose behaviours display that belief. Only with such leadership can the organisation ‘push’ (rather than tolerate) flexibility.
Individual workers will engage fully when they feel that their organisation’s values align to their own. And men and women who have chosen to work flexibly must feel (and be) properly respected in their role.
This can only happen if the senior leaders model that respect and particularly the typically ‘sticky’ middle management layer follow their lead.

7. Change the organisation’s targets
Obviously commercial organisations need to focus on profit to be successful. What is stopping that focus being indirect and the primary focus being employee engagement, which studies are consistently showing generates productivity and profitability.
8. Have a conversation with your clients about ‘the how’
The 24/7 nature of client demands is frequently cited as the major obstacle to flexibility, particularly in service industries.
To obtain the full dividend from flexibility, organisations need to enter into a dialogue with their clients about how services can be delivered without placing unsustainable demands on individuals and by those working flexibly; about moving from a transactional to a more relationship based model.
Those that have done this report that clients engage in a debate because they are frequently experiencing the same pressures themselves. Much of the resistance may actually stem from individual workers satisfying their need to be indispensable and not allowing others to be involved.
Also there is the great weight of ‘this is the way that we have always done things’. A conversation on the topic can only help. Does having two people doing what has always been seen as one job necessarily lead to a duplication of costs or does it lead to a richer diversity of ideas and greater productivity?

9. Recognise both the fear factor and the power of individuals to question
The current economic climate is obviously making individuals and organisations more risk averse – in terms of career choices and HR practices. Perhaps though this is a time for new solutions.
It’s certainly a time when individuals should be using their power to question tried and tested practices, to ask questions about why we do it like that? Possibly to suggest solutions that involve flexibility and cost reduction or productivity increase.
Matt Dean is founder of byrne.dean, an employment law practice that provides training and facilitation services.

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Matt Dean


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