Why do so many people remain sceptical about the business benefits of flexible working?

One of the key reasons for this is that flexible working is often pigeon-holed alongside family-friendly working rights such as parental leave.  It is then regarded as a benefit, or as an exceptional way of working – something different from the ‘normal’ and majority way of working.

And we’re going to see more of this in 2013 – much of it coming from the government.  New leave regulations and new measures for flexible working, justified primarily by their benefits to parents and families.

Don’t get me wrong on that. It is the right direction to go. But the problem is, it reinforces sceptical attitudes to flexible working as being not quite business-like, and probably a cost on the business.  Countering with statistics around retention and improved attendance fail to impress.

And the sceptics’ attitude can have good foundations.  When flexible working is all about reacting to requests and responding to individual needs, it’s likely that the benefits will accrue more to the individual than the organisation.

Why? It is because the approach to flexibility is inherently un-strategic and reactive.  You can’t do workforce and workplace planning by making ad hoc responses to requests on a case-by-case basis.

So what’s the right thing to do?

The right thing to do is to take flexible working out of its family-friendly/work-life balance pigeon-hole and set it in firmly in the context of business transformation through Smart Working.

To emphasise the different approach, this is what I call Smart Flexibility. That is a comprehensive, strategic and integrated approach to implementing Smart and Flexible Working. 

That involves rethinking how, where and when everyone – not only parents – works, what they work with and how they interact and collaborate for working. It involves developing a framework for having ‘flexibility as normal’, and providing the tools, the skills and the autonomy to enable staff to make mature choices about where and when is best to get the work done.

It will also involve, in most cases, driving out the waste in how our workplaces, processes and routines are organised, leading to cashable savings in property, facilities, resource consumption and travel.

This kind of approach to flexible working speaks directly to the bottom line.  Its rationale is to work more effectively and efficiently.  Yet it also creates the structures and habits of flexibility that will offer more scope than ever for people to make personal choices that align with their personal circumstances.

Making the transition is not necessarily easy.  It can involve big changes to workplaces and to IT and communications. But the biggest changes will be around developing new behaviours and a new culture of flexibility.  That involves challenging a lot of assumptions around how work is done. 

As this is all about people, HR should be out at the front leading the transformation. It’s about making flexibility a reality for all in the workplace, rather than a policy to call on for a minority.

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